Does our society really take care of others in need? Is Georgia a state where small businesses can thrive? When I started reaching out and hearing stories of Georgians struggling to make ends meet, I realized the many challenges and barriers that exist because of the impacts of climate change and growing energy burden.
Recently, I had an opportunity to have a conversation with a small business owner named Rawda Ahmed, who told me about the challenges of running a new business while keeping the lights on.
Rawda is an immigrant from Jimaa, Ethiopia. She moved to America in 1998 to pursue her small slice of the American Dream. Despite her hopes, she never thought that she would ever be able to become a business owner in America. However, in 2021, during the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, she found an opportunity to open her first business, La Rosa Food Mart.
Located in Duluth, GA, La Rosa Food Mart is a neighborhood convenience store with everything you might need for a quick stop, including food, snacks, small clothing and accessory items. Rawda started the business in April 2021 with money she diligently saved from missed vacation days at her previous job. Yet despite being open for a year and working 12-hour days seven days a week, Rawda has yet to make revenue from the business because of enormous bills.
Impact of Energy Bills on Small Businesses
One of the significant barriers affecting Rawda and many small business owners across Georgia is high utility bills. During the summer, Rawda’s electric bill is close to $700 monthly and drops only slightly in winter to $500. Along with rent and other expenses, she’s barely getting by. As a result, Rawda often opts to skip gas and heating during winter because she can’t afford the additional payment. Instead, she uses a personal space heater to stay warm.
Across the state, there are similar stories of struggling small business owners facing new financial challenges thanks to the increased impacts of climate change. Business owners should not have to pick and choose to keep their shops cool in summer and warm in winter or keep their doors open. While there are risks in being a business owner, it should not be the responsibility of a small business to deal with the effects of climate change added to their expenses.
Small businesses are an essential part of the Georgia economy. One million small businesses in Georgia employ 46% of the state’s working population. Additionally, the climate burden is not relegated to just the small business community, having an outsized impact on low-income and other vulnerable families across our state. Energy burden—the percentage of household income spent on energy—is a significant problem in Georgia. In a study conducted by Georgia Tech, scholars found that Atlanta is ranked fourth highest in median energy burden levels, with the third highest energy burden among low-income household populations at 10.2%. More than 1.2 million Georgians pay 6% or more of their household income for electricity, with low-income Black households in the U.S. paying significantly more than white households. Rawda, a black immigrant business owner, is not an exception; instead, she is an example of that statistic.
Rawda was not the only person who had thoughts on the current climate crisis and how it affects her family. I also had the opportunity to speak with Beka, her 13-year-old son, and what he thinks about climate change and its effects on his mother’s business. For Beka, it was the potential long-term effects of climate change that were on top of his mind. As a young teenager, Beka loves visiting his local parks, especially Island Drive. He also enjoys climbing Stone Mountain and going to Myrtle Beach but expressed concerns that these opportunities would no longer be available in the future due to air quality and pollution. He recalled that the Ahmed household suffered from unseasonably hot nights last summer, unable to sleep well even with multiple fans by their beds. Beka also talked about how the extreme heat prevented him from being able to take part in his usual summer activities outside during the day. Unfortunately for Beka and millions of children across the country, this appears to be the new norm, not just a scorching summer.
An Unavoidable Climate Reality
Currently, Georgia has an average of twenty dangerous heat days per year. By 2050, that number is projected to reach ninety days. Additionally, the first six months of 2022 have been Atlanta’s fourth hottest on record, with record temperatures and humidity. It is becoming clear to everyone that man-made climate change is the leading cause of extreme temperatures. Worse, this problem is rapidly becoming too big to ignore, and a harmful cycle has begun to form. The hotter (or colder) it gets, the higher the utility bill for small businesses and households all around Georgia. This, in turn, drives families to use power to cool or warm their homes and businesses, which use more energy, primarily from fossil fuels that accelerate climate change. And the cycle continues.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the problems of climate change, but the truth is that there is a solution. With a dedicated transition to clean and renewable energy, we can break the cycle and take steps to prevent even worse effects of climate change. Moreover, with enough effort and dedication, we can slowly undo some or all of the damages from human-driven climate change. The change that needs to be made is not something that will happen overnight. It will take time, but it won’t take long if we all make an effort. People and the government should do everything in our power to ensure we are no longer contributing to the problem but becoming the solution.
Opportunity for Change
As we finished our time at La Rosa Food Mart, I asked Beka what people, communities and the government should do to address climate change.
“It’s important for adults to take action because when they’re gone, they’re leaving this earth to their children,” Beka said. “Even though they may not see the effects, they have to start the path for a better future. Adults make the decisions and have control over children’s lives and they should work towards something sustainable and helpful for the earth and humanity.”
Sadly, Rawda and Beka’s story isn’t a new or uncommon one. Thousands of families and millions of people across Georgia are affected similarly by these energy burdens. That’s why we are fighting for climate justice across the state and pushing for legislation to better help low-income families pay their power bills and protect them from the worst effects of climate change.
During the last legislative session, GCV helped introduce a bill called the Georgian’s First Fund Bill, which would create a funding stream to support electric bill affordability, electricity conservation and access for customers who earn a lower income. We’re also carefully tracking the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in transformational change that will help cut planet-warming pollution by roughly 40% by 2030 and protect our communities from future devastation. But we need your help to make sure it gets passed.
If you’re looking to volunteer locally, we’re working to elect leaders committed to fighting for environmental justice, clean energy and clean jobs through our GCVictory campaign. You can sign up to volunteer here.
Together, we can transform our state and make a brighter, cleaner and more prosperous future for all.
Written By: Mia Delamar, Senior Organizer, Georgia Conservation Voters