Sarah Sanchez with her daughter Edith at Frogtown Park and Farm in St. Paul. Credit: Evan Frost, MPR

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Sarah Sanchez was 24 weeks pregnant in June 2020 when a heatwave hit the Twin Cities. 

Her apartment only had one wall air conditioning unit. It was too hot to take her typical walks. She was uncomfortable and felt a contraction. She called her doctor, went in for a visit, and discovered she had entered labor early. Her daughter, Edith, was born weighing one pound, nine ounces, and spent 111 days in the newborn intensive care unit, where she battled several health issues. Today, Edith is doing well, Sanchez told members of Minnesota’s House of Representatives at a January 3 hearing.

But Sanchez, who identifies as biracial, believes her story connects to the warming planet, and the way people of color often bear the brunt of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas.  

“There’s something larger at play,” Sanchez said. 

In 2021, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that college educated Black women with are 1.27 times more likely to experience premature labor and birth after a heat wave than white women without a college degree. 

Sanchez testified at a hearing on environmental justice, the recognition that communities of color and poor neighborhoods throughout the United States face higher levels of pollution and are at a greater risk from climate change. This year, Democrats in the Minnesota Legislature are pushing to pass bills that invest $1 billion in climate action statewide. Caucus leaders say it’s a prudent move for a state with a $7 billion surplus, though it’s unlikely that their Republican counterparts in charge of the state Senate will agree to spend that much on climate. 

“We understand that the burden of air pollution is not equally shared,” Representative Fue Lee (DFL-Minneapolis) said. 

Warming Minnesota

Minnesota is getting warmer and wetter. The 10 hottest years in recorded state history occurred in the past 20 years, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Events in which six inches of precipitation fall happen three times more often than they did 50 years ago. 

That means more heat stress, more floods in the spring, and more droughts in the summers, according to Frank Kohlasch, the environmental justice director for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

“We know that we will all be impacted by these changes, but that particular communities will be impacted more specifically,” Kohlasch said. 

Roxxanne O’Brien of Community Members for Environmental Justice was among those who testified in favor of Lee’s bill that would require the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to consider effects of past and current pollution before approving a new permit or significantly altering an existing permit in areas identified as environmental justice communities. Those communities have higher rates of poverty and a greater concentration of diverse residents than the state. The Near North and East Phillips neighborhoods of Minneapolis, White Earth Nation in northern Minnesota, and the east side of Austin in the southern part of the state are all examples. 

The bill would also prioritize those areas for grant funding and other initiatives to reduce pollution, such as electric transit buses. 

Cecilia Martinez, who recently left a role as the lead climate justice official for the White House and previously co-founded the Minnesota nonprofit Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy, told legislators it is critical for states to identify and prioritize disadvantaged communities. She touted the Biden Administration’s Justice40 initiative , which pledges to invest 40 percent of all federal sustainability efforts into highly polluted areas. 

“There is an incredible opportunity for us to make a difference in the most disadvantaged and vulnerable communities in the state,” she said.  

Broader package 

Lee’s bill is an addition to a larger climate package sought by Minnesota Democrats. Last month, the caucus released the Minnesota Climate Action Plan, a $1 billion proposed investment that members say will protect the environment, create jobs, and save people money. 

The proposal calls for: 

  • $105 million in clean energy investments, including solar energy systems on public buildings and money to help people transition out of jobs in the fossil fuel industry.
  •  $375 million for transportation such as new bus rapid transit lines, electric buses for school and transit, and walking and biking infrastructure.
  •  $355 million in upgrading buildings, including a massive investment in weatherization for middle and low-income households, and upgraded heating and cooling systems for public schools.
  •  $130 million for land improvements like planting five million trees annually and helping farmers create healthier soil by diversifying crops.
  •  $33.5 million for infrastructure to help cities pay to update stormwater systems to handle increased rainfalls. 

Representative Jamie Long (DFL-Minneapolis), who chairs the climate and energy finance committee, told Sahan Journal the caucus believes a $1 billion investment in climate is necessary and affordable at a time when the state has a $7.7 billion budget surplus. He said lawmakers consulted with experts and tried to divide up investments based on need. 

While Governor Tim Walz is supportive of the package, its passage, and that of any other climate initiatives, will depend on cooperation from the Republican-led state Senate. Republican leaders say they will prioritize tax cuts and grants to recruit and train new police officers,  MinnPost reported.

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Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...