Experts Say Clean Energy Transition Must Prioritize Low-Income Communities

Climate experts spoke with actor and environmental activist Shailene Woodley at the TIME100 Summit on Wednesday about ensuring that America not only moves toward a clean energy future, but that it happens equitably.

Communities living near facilities that significantly pollute the air often disproportionately suffer the health costs, while the jobs tend to be reaped by neighborhoods further away, says Robert D. Bullard, professor and director of Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Policy at Texas Southern University. This same disparity should not occur with the transition to clean energy, he notes. “There’s no economic renaissance along the fenceline in Louisiana’s cancer alley or Houston’s chemical quarter,” says Bullard. “Those communities that historically have been left out, their voices have not been in the room when decisions are being made about policy.”

A 2023 State of the Air Report from the found that people of color make up 41% of the U.S. population but are 54% of the nearly 120 million living in counties with at least one failing grade. “In the counties with the worst air quality that get failing grades for all three pollution measures, 72% of the 18 million residents affected are people of color, compared to the 28% who are white,” the report notes.

There are some victories though. The Inflation Reduction Act, landmark environmental legislation passed by Congress in 2022, set aside . “There’s money for it and more people in the room to decide what we need to do to transition in a suitable way,” Bullard says.

Christiana Figueres, co-host of the Outrage+Optimism Podcast who has worked as a diplomat on climate change issues at the United Nations, stresses that the international community should similarly invest in an equitable transition to clean energy. Figueres points to heat waves across large swathes of Africa in recent weeks. “What recourse do these people have?” she asks. “(Women) are tilling land that is everyday more arid, more dry and less fertile…We still do not have the support for people who have not caused climate change…that to me is one of the main injustices.” Woodley is an actor and environmental activist. She has —and joined a yearlong expedition on the Esperanza ship in 2019 to research the impact of plastics and microplastics on marine life—and advocates for climate solutions.