Poor, Minorities Hit Hardest by Climate Change

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Climate change, studies show, will increase extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods, droughts, and wildfires. Air pollution will also worsen with the warming temperatures. Both will take a toll on public health, with people of color and the poor worse off.

Climate Change is RealPeople who live in neighborhoods with dirtier air and water – usually low-income and ethnic minorities – will bear the brunt of climate change, according to a report released recently.

Climate change will increase pollution, harm public health, raise the costs of food, energy and water, and result in job losses, with the greatest burden falling on communities of color and the poor, the study found.

“Climate change is real. So is the climate gap. It’s not something fictitious, made up by communities who feel underrepresented,” said Dr. Manuel Pastor, one of the report’s authors and a professor at the University of Southern California.

Pastor, who directs the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at USC’s Center for Sustainable Cities, says that as environmentalists and policymakers come up with policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they also need to address the disproportionate impact that climate change will have on the neediest populations. “The levees that would have protected the poor of New Orleans would have protected the whole city,” he said.

Climate change, studies show, will increase extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods, droughts, and wildfires. Air pollution will also worsen with the warming temperatures. Both will take a toll on public health, with people of color and the poor worse off.

African Americans in Los Angeles are twice as likely to die from heat wave-related illnesses than other city residents. A study of the 2006 California heat wave found that Latinos had the highest rates of emergency room visits and hospitalizations in the state. The risk of death because of heat wave-related illness is also higher for infants, the elderly, people with chronic conditions, and those without air conditioning or access to transportation to get to cooler places.

In some cases, people had air conditioning but felt they could not afford to turn it on, said report co-author Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor of environmental science, policy and management in the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. Communities of color and low-income people tend to live in areas abundant in heat-absorbing concrete and asphalt and lacking in parks and trees that provide shade. This “heat-island effect,” said Morello-Frosch, intensifies the impact of heat waves.

Minimizing the effects of heat waves requires investment in access to quality housing, air conditioning, transportation, cooling centers, green space, as well as more public outreach and education, she said. Another strategy to reduce the impacts of climate change on communities of color is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in neighborhoods with the heaviest polluters.

But this would take an economic toll on the same communities. That’s because the heaviest polluters and emitters of greenhouse gases in California, including power plants, oil refineries and cement factories, employ more people of color (60 percent of their workforce) in jobs that tend to be unionized and higher paying.

Climate change will also result in job losses in the agricultural and tourism sectors, which employ large numbers of minorities.

Some argue that policies that reduce greenhouse gases would increase energy and water costs for consumers, especially those who can least afford it.

But poor families already spend a larger fraction of their household income on water, food and electricity costs, according to the report. Those in the lowest income group paid three times as much for water, and twice as much for food and electricity as those in the highest income group.

“The do-nothing approach will make gaps worse,” said Morello-Frosch.

The report comes at a time when both California and the federal government are considering policies to tackle climate change and reduce carbon emissions. The Waxman-Markey climate bill, passed by a US House of Representatives committee last month, sets ambitious goals for emissions reductions, but does not address how pollution allowances would be distributed, or to what extent they would be auctioned or given away for free. It also does not specify how revenue generated under the system would be spent – for example, to offset consumers’ higher energy bills. The bill still needs to be approved by a full House vote.

Last year, California approved a scoping plan to implement AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act. But Dr. Shankar Prasad, of the Coalition for Clean Air, says the state’s plan does not require a portion of the revenues generated to go back to the communities most affected by climate change. The Coalition is among a group of organizations that is pushing for state legislation to create a community benefits fund.

With the state in the midst of a budget crisis, Morello-Frosch believes that tapping revenue from a cap-and-auction system and pouring a portion back into the neediest communities may be the most effective strategy.

USC’s Pastor says there has not been enough communication between environmentalists, who are fighting the effects of climate change, and communities of color, who will feel those effects.

“Environmentalists have had carbon blinders on,” he said. “They’ve been focused on how to reduce carbon emissions…without considering that co-pollutant effects, cost issues, and green jobs creation are essential to the conversation.”

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