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Civil Rights Leaders: Heat Can Have Disproportionate Impacts

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Hilary Shelton, left, and Benjamin Jealous, middle, discuss the NAACP's Climate Justice Initiative.
Jessica Gould
Hilary Shelton, left, and Benjamin Jealous, middle, discuss the NAACP's Climate Justice Initiative.

On days like these, the heat affects everyone. But, Hilary Shelton says, it doesn't affect everyone equally. Shelton is director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP.

"In one community, it means you keep your air conditioner on longer. It puts a strain on your family budget, but you get through it. In another community, it means poor, elderly people are dying in their apartments," he says.

Shelton says heat spikes in urban areas such as D.C., where more minorities tend to live. And, according to the organization's statistics, heat-related deaths among African-Americans occur at a 150 to 200 percent greater rate than for non-Hispanic whites.

"African-Americans are disproportionately poor," he says. "We live in older homes. Our apartments tend not be as well insulated."

That's why, Shelton says, environmental justice is a civil rights issue.

"Environmental justice is the effects of environmental challenges whether it's air pollution, clean water, toxins in the soil," he says, "and looking at it from a racial perspective."

In 2009, the NAACP launched the Climate Justice Initiative. The goal he says is to galvanize local and federal legislators on issues of clean air, green jobs and renewable energy.

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