Heavily informed by the Civil Rights Movement, the Environmental Justice movement for minorities and people of color is constructed by agendas surrounding autonomy, land rights, and human rights through the redefining of how African Americans and minorities relate to the environment. Proponents of classical economic theory argue poverty is the main factor for distribution of environmental hazards, and African Americans and minorities are most affected because they are disproportionately poor. Market dynamic explanations are often employed to argue that industry is not intentionally discriminatory, but because its goal is to maximize profits, an industry will seek placement where land is cheap, and this may coincidentally be located in an area where poor, minority groups reside.
However, race cannot be separated from poverty and placement, as people of color and minority groups often face educational and job discrimination resulting in low income; and racial housing discrimination, coupled with low-income restricts the mobilization of African Americans and minorities out of these areas.
Energy insecurity has long been excluded from these environmental justice debates, resulting in lost opportunities to explain the austerity of low-income households in regards to household energy bills, poor thermal comfort, and coping strategies.
In recent years, there has been growing scholarship and activism in the field of energy justice to highlight the social and environmental inequalities embedded in energy consumption. Energy justice acknowledges the right to healthy, sustainable energy production; the best energy infrastructure; affordable energy; and uninterrupted energy service, as the four basic human rights to energy. In households that earn more than $50,000 annually, energy expenditures represent merely 3 percent of average after-tax income, however; in low-income households making less than $10,000 annually, energy expenditures represent 33 percent of average after-tax income.
Reames (2016) found that block groups with higher percentages of households below poverty, a greater percentage of minority headed-households, and a higher percentage of adults with less than a high school education were less efficient, even though these areas demonstrated lower predicted heating consumption. A community’s built environment has a heavy hand in the impact of climatic differences; the energy efficiency of homes, heating systems and appliances, coupled with the availability of affordable, efficient energy carriers will determine the vulnerability of elevated risks. Low-income households are not only impacted by economic energy insecurity, but they face the hardships of structural energy insecurity, where drafty windows, poor insulation, inefficient appliances, and defective thermal systems impede thermal comfort and force households to employ coping strategies. These households lack the financial means to invest in energy efficiency renovations, and often do not own their homes, resulting in inadequate energy services and high energy costs.
Energy related inconsistencies put low-income communities with fewer resources to adapt to climate change at greater risk of exposure to extreme temperatures, resulting in adverse health implications. Poor housing conditions increase the degree of heat exposed in buildings, and because poor residents are more likely to inhabit buildings with structural impediments, they are more vulnerable to the detrimental health effects of extreme heat exposure. These housing conditions, coupled with high energy costs, force low-income families to broker competing expenses, making them decide between paying energy bills or paying for food or medical attention. Those experiencing energy insecurity in inefficient buildings may undergo a cycle where the poor living conditions of their home can lead to damaged health; and this decline in health in turn can increase energy needs, thus increasing energy bills. Children living in these households are more likely to experience poor health and food insecurity.
The inefficiency of thermal energy has been tied to a rise in greenhouse gas levels, causing an increase in smog and a decline in air quality that will most severely burden low-income and minority communities. Residents of these households face a greater risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, nitrogen dioxide exposure, and heating fires due to the use of space heaters, ovens, and stoves as coping strategies for a lack of thermal comfort. Homeowners vs Renters and the Landlord-Tenant Dilemma Some of the poorest quality and most inefficient energy properties can be found in social housing and the private rented sector. In comparison to owner occupied homes, a greater proportion of rental homes use electric heating systems and hot water services, contributing more intensely to greenhouse gas levels.
Those living in social housing and rentals experience more housing problems, such as cold housing, damp conditions, and mold, than owner occupied homes. In the United States, only 17 percent of rented properties have weather stripping, 43 percent have double-glazing, and 28 percent are considered well-insulated. This can be explained by the ‘split-incentive’ problem, where landlords determine the level of energy efficiency and performance in a property, while the tenants pay the energy bills; because the two interests are unaligned, the landlord does not have incentive to invest in energy efficiency renovations. Because it is usually not practical for renters to invest in efficiency upgrades due to the payback periods that are longer than most leases, Although homeowners have more control over their thermal comfort, they are burdened with the costs of upgrades and repairs to heating and cooling systems.