by Dr. Reynaldo Guerra
Maria Cardona, a CNN Contributor, wrote a great article on the environment being a Latino issue nationwide. She makes a strong case for the environment and clean energy being ‘linked’ for Latinos. I completely agree, but I’d take it a step further. While the term ‘linkage’ does imply a connection, it doesn’t necessarily connote dependence, and all evidence points to there being a strong dependence between the three, especially here in Houston.
The nerd in me can’t resist the opportunity for a science analogy here. Let’s start with a definition:
Symbiotic Relationship: A relationship between entities that is of mutual benefit or dependence. (Note: 100% of scientists don’t agree on this definition, but that’s a separate discussion better had over a frothy beverage.)
I’m not sure how old I was, I was probably still playing with G. I. Joes, but I remember learning about symbiotic relationships in science class. I still remember the picture of the small fish (a remora, it turns out) swimming, almost with a smile, next to a very mean looking shark.
Even a superficial look at our current situation in this country illustrates the fact that Latinos, the environment, and clean energy all have a symbiotic relationship (I’ll leave it to the reader’s imagination to decide the shark leaving crumbs for remoras in this metaphor). The three are all dependent on each other in some way or another. Each thrives and is much healthier for the other. Their survival may even depend on their having a healthy relationship.
Given the fact that Houston is the energy capitol of the world and Latinos are 44% of her population, this tri-symbiotic relationship is especially pronounced here in Houston. Let’s frame the discussion.
Green Home Construction
There is a large contingent of Latinos here in Houston that are blue-collar workers. It’s even fair to say that anytime something is built or constructed, Latinos will likely play a major role. I recently visited a LEED Gold certified elementary school as a part of our mayor’s Green Building Tours Initiative (kudos, Mayor Parker). Not only was one of the creative designers a Latino from Paraguay, but it’s a safe bet that most of the construction was performed by Latinos as well. Given the population and demographics of the construction industry, solar panels, low-E windows, insulation, or any other green measure installed in Houston will most likely be installed by Latinos.
Building Energy Efficiency: REEP
Unfortunately, the City of Houston’s Residential Energy Efficiency Program (REEP) appears to be on the chopping blocks. However, since 2010 REEP is responsible for having created, by some estimates, almost 1,000 jobs and for having made thousands of low-income homes energy efficient.
To put REEP’S environmental benefits into perspective, residential and commercial buildings account for 67% of all electricity consumption and 40% of CO2 emissions in the U.S. (DOE). Either African-Americans or Latinos occupy the vast majority of low-income homes in Houston. Energy bills are also a much bigger percentage of income for low-income communities. Making homes energy efficient in the 4th largest city in the country has a huge impact on the environment and on the health and pocketbook of the Latino community.
The REEP program not only created blue-collar jobs for Latinos, it also created managerial and entrepreneurial opportunities. Four prime contractors were initially awarded the REEP contract. Two of them were minority owned: Payless Insulation (woman-owned) and PMG Project Management Group (Latino-owned). The government requirement that prime contractors subcontract out 25% of their work to minority- or women-owned firms has created significant opportunities for Latino entrepreneurs and blue-collar workers.
The Mayor and the City of Houston have made strong commitments to a Green Houston. They have publically stated a goal of becoming number one in the nation in Energy Star and LEED certified buildings and have committed to making 30 million sq. ft. of city property energy efficient by 2020. The realization of these goals will undoubtedly lead to more blue- and white-collar jobs for Latinos.
The GOP has been in the news lately attacking potential environmental regulations as ‘”job killers.” Well, not only is the opposite true (see case studies all over Europe and even Austin, for example) but, as Cardona points out, for millions of Americans, especially Latinos, clean air regulations are “life-saving regulations.” This isn’t surprising, since most occupied areas affected by pollution happen to be inhabited by Latinos or African-Americans. Again, this is especially true in the Houston area, Pasadena being a prime example. With respect to creating jobs, retrofitting existing equipment or installing new equipment to meet environmental regulations requires labor, excellent job opportunities for Latinos. Again, regulations that target pollution and carbon emissions are both health preserving and job creating.
With the recession still in town, it behooves the Latino community to rally around policy, elected officials, and businesses that support the environment and clean energy initiatives. Our health and ability to put food on the table may depend on it.
Dr. Reynaldo Guerra is a Houston small business owner and Chair of the Greater Houston Civic Coalition.