Our biggest challenges are neglected when ideology prevails

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Under the leadership of President Barack Obama, the United States has taken unprecedented action to begin addressing climate change – one of the biggest issues facing our time. Through advancements in new technologies, environmental initiatives and cleaner energy resources, our country has already greatly reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

Unfortunately, the public debate over the causes and solutions to climate change have become politically polarized, as issues too often do in this country. And unfortunately, the energy sector has been turned into a boogey man in this debate, even as it propels much-needed economic growth while exploring for new sources of clean energy. It should not be this way, especially if we are serious about addressing the real issues before us.

Like the rest of the country, our community in Illinois is facing myriad economic, political and social challenges. From stagnated economic development to police misconduct to the increasing violence in our inner-cities, the African American community, especially, is facing a more divided and troubling future.

In fact, the Illinois unemployment rate for the African American community is more than double, 11.5 percent, the statewide unemployment rate. This is an unacceptable situation that must be addressed.

Part of the solution will be to reboot economic opportunities for African Americans in our state and areas around the nation. One place to start is to utilize opportunities developing in the growing energy industry. A recent report found that African Americans will easily account for over 100,000 jobs in the energy industry in the next 15 years.

Nearly 65 percent of these jobs will cover skilled (first line supervisors, electricians, industrial machine mechanics, etc.); semi-skilled (welders, truck drivers, excavating, etc.); professional (architects, engineers, surveyors, etc.); and management (general operations, engineering managers, accountants, etc.) positions.

Many may not be aware, but the energy industry has been one of the bright spots in our economy as we struggled to rebound from the protracted recession. Recently, the Progressive Policy Institute found that the United States’ energy sector invested more than $201 billion in domestic buildings, equipment and software in 2014 alone.

Not only has this investment translated into jobs and opportunities for everyone from construction workers to accountants, engineers and scientists. It has also meant progress and technological breakthroughs that benefit both the economy and the environment.

In fact, it was ExxonMobil that pioneered the first lithium battery – an invention that served as the basis for the batteries in electric cars, like Tesla. More than that, investments by energy companies like ExxonMobil have expanded access to cleaner bridge fuels that can serve our needs until we can fully tap efficient, clean and renewable sources of energy.

There is no doubt that we are facing enormous challenges – whether it is the specter of climate change that haunts future generations or the burden of economic inequality that leaves behind some of our communities. But the solution will not be found in overheated rhetoric, recriminations or even scapegoating an industry as vitally important as the energy sector.

Indeed, I believe that the energy industry will play an integral role in finding a solution to the problem of climate change while continuing to help create new economic opportunities for all Americans, including economically disenfranchised communities.

It is within our grasp to find practical solutions that protect our environment while serving our economic interests. Now we must resolve to get on with that task – and set aside partisan bickering.

Robert J. Dale is chairman of the board of the Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce.

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