While COVID-19 has killed 200,000 Americans so far, communities of color have borne disproportionately greater impacts of the pandemic. Black, Indigenous and LatinX Americans are at least three times more likely to die of COVID than whites. In 23 states, there were 3.5 times more cases among American Indian and Alaskan Native communities than in white communities. Many of the reasons these communities of color are falling victim to the pandemic are the same reasons why they are hardest hit by the impacts of climate change.
How communities of color are affected by climate change
Climate change is a threat to everyone’s physical health, mental health, air, water, food and shelter, but some groups—socially and economically disadvantaged ones—face the greatest risks. This is because of where they live, their health, income, language barriers, and limited access to resources. In the U.S., these more vulnerable communities are largely the communities of color, immigrants, low-income communities and people for whom English is not their native language. As time goes on, they will suffer the worst impacts of climate change, unless we recognize that fighting climate change and environmental justice are inextricably linked.
The U.S. is facing warming temperatures and more intense and frequent heat waves as the climate changes. Higher temperatures lead to more deaths and illness, hospital and emergency room visits, and birth defects. Extreme heat can cause heat cramps, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, hyperthermia, and dehydration.
Disadvantaged communities have higher rates of health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Heat stress can exacerbate heart disease and diabetes, and warming temperatures result in more pollen and smog, which can worsen asthma and COPD. Heat waves also affect birth outcomes. A study of the impact of California heat waves from 1999 to 2011 on infants found that mortality rates were highest for Black infants. Moreover, disadvantaged communities often lack access to good medical care and health insurance.
African Americans are three times more likely than whites to live in old, crowded or inferior housing; residents of homes with poor insulation and no air conditioning are particularly susceptible to the effects of increased heat. In addition, low-income areas in cities have been found to be five to 12 degrees hotter than higher income neighborhoods because they have fewer trees and parks, and more asphalt that retains heat.
Extreme weather events
While climate change cannot be definitively linked to any particular extreme weather event, incidents of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, heavy downpours, winter storms, floods and hurricanes have increased and climate change is expected to make them more frequent and intense.
Extreme weather events can cause injury, illness, and death. Changes in precipitation patterns and warming water temperatures enable bacteria, viruses, parasites and toxic algae to flourish; heavy rains and flooding can pollute drinking water and increase water contamination, potentially causing gastrointestinal illnesses like diarrhea and damaging livers and kidneys.
Extreme weather events also disrupt electrical power, water systems and transportation, as well as the communication networks needed to access emergency services and health care. Disadvantaged communities are particularly at risk because subpar housing with old infrastructure may be more vulnerable to power outages, water issues and damage. Residents of these communities may lack adequate health care, medicines, health insurance, and access to public health warnings in a language they can understand. In addition, they may not have access to transportation to escape the impacts of extreme weather, or home insurance and other resources to relocate or rebuild after a disaster. Communities of color are also less likely to receive adequate protection against disasters or a prompt response in case of emergencies. In addition to physical hardships, the stress and anxiety of dealing with these impacts of extreme weather can end up exacerbating mental health problems such as depression, post-traumatic stress and suicide.
Poor air quality
While climate change does not cause poor air quality, burning fossil fuels does; and climate change can worsen air quality. Heat waves cause air masses to remain stagnant and prevent air pollution from moving away. Warmer temperatures lead to the creation of more smog, particularly during summer. And wildfires, fueled by heat waves and drought, produce smoke that contains toxic pollutants.
Living with polluted air can lead to heart and lung diseases, aggravate allergies and asthma and cause premature death. People who live in urban areas with air pollution, or who have medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, asthma or COPD, are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution.
Black people are three times more likely to die from air pollution than white people. This is in part because they are 70 percent more likely to live in counties that are in violation of federal air pollution standards. A University of Minnesota study found that, on average, people of color are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide outdoor air pollution than white people. One reason for the high COVID-19 death rate among African Americans is that cumulative exposure to air pollution leads to a significant increase in the COVID death rate, according to a new peer-reviewed study.
More people of color live in places that are polluted with toxic waste, which can lead to illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and asthma. These pre-existing conditions put people at higher risk for the more severe effects of COVID-19.
The fact that disadvantaged communities are in some of the most polluted environments in the U.S. is no coincidence. Communities of color are often chosen as sites for landfills, chemical plants, bus terminals and other dirty businesses because corporations know it’s harder for these residents to object. They usually lack the connections to lawmakers who could protect them and can’t afford to hire technical or legal help to put up a fight. They may not understand how they will be impacted, perhaps because the information is not in their native language. A 1987 report showed that race was the single most important factor in determining where to locate a toxic waste facility in the U.S. It found that “Communities with the greatest number of commercial hazardous waste facilities had the highest composition of racial and ethnic residents.”
For example, while Blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, 68 percent live within 30 miles of a coal plant. LatinX people are 17 percent of the population, but 39 percent of them live near coal plants. A new report found that about 2,000 official and potential highly contaminated Superfund sites are at risk of flooding due to sea level rise; the areas around these sites are mainly communities of color and low-income communities.
The link between climate change and environmental justice
Mary Annaïse Heglar, a climate justice essayist and former writer-in-residence at the Earth Institute, asserts that climate change is actually the product of racism. “It started with conquest, genocides, slavery, and colonialism,” she wrote. “That is the moment when White men’s relationship with living things became extractive and disharmonious. Everything was for the taking; everything was for sale. The fossil fuel industry was literally built on the backs and over the graves of Indigenous people around the globe, as they were forced off their land and either slaughtered or subjugated — from the Arab world to Africa, from Asia to the Americas. Again, it was no accident.”
The harmful impacts of climate change are linked to historical neglect and racism. When Black people migrated North from the South in the early 20th century, many did not have jobs or money; consequently they were forced to live in substandard housing. Jim Crow laws in the South reinforced racial segregation, prohibiting Blacks from moving into white neighborhoods. In the 1930s through the 1960s, the federal government’s “redlining” policy denied federally backed mortgages and credit to minority neighborhoods. As a result, African Americans had limited access to better homes and all the advantages that went with them—a healthy environment, better schools and healthcare, and more food options.
Prime examples of environmental injustice
Poor sanitation in the U.S.
Catherine Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and a senior fellow for the Center for Earth Ethics, which is affiliated with the Earth Institute, is from Lowndes County, Alabama. As a child growing up in a poor, mostly Black rural area with less than 10,000 residents, she used an outhouse before her family installed indoor plumbing. After leaving to get an education, Flowers returned to Alabama in 2002 and still saw extreme disparities in rural wastewater treatment. She visited many homes with sewage backing up into their homes or pooling in their yards, as many residents couldn’t afford onsite wastewater treatment. She is still advocating for proper sanitation in Lowndes. As a result of her work, Baylor College’s National School of Tropical Medicine conducted a peer-reviewed study which showed that over 30 percent of Lowndes County residents had hookworm and other tropical parasites due to poor sanitation.
”We’re also seeing that there is a relationship between [wastewater and] COVID infections,” added Flowers. “We don’t know exactly what it is yet—but you can actually measure wastewater to determine the level of infections in the community before people start showing up with the illness.” In Lowndes, one of every 18 residents has COVID-19; it is one of the highest infection rates in the U.S.
Today, Flowers works at the intersection between climate change and wastewater throughout the U.S. “The more we see sea level rise, the more we’re going to have wastewater problems,” she said. Her new book, Waste, One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, due out in November, shows how proper sanitation is essential as climate change will likely bring sewage to more backyards everywhere, not just in poor communities.
An 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, hosts the densest concentration of petrochemical companies in the U.S. There have been so many cases of cancer and death in the area that it became known as “Cancer Alley.”
Most of these petrochemical plants are situated near towns that are largely poor and Black. There are 30 large plants within 10 miles of mostly Black St. Gabriel, with 13 within three miles. St. James Parish, whose population is roughly half Black and half white, has over 30 petrochemical plants, but the majority are located in the district that is 80 percent Black.
These plants not only emit greenhouse gases that are exacerbating climate change, but the particulate matter they expel can contain hundreds of different chemicals. Chronic exposure to this air pollution can lead to heart and respiratory illnesses and diabetes. As such, it is no surprise that St. James Parish is among the 20 U.S. counties with the highest per-capita death rates from COVID-19.
Despite efforts of the residents to fight back, seven new petrochemical plants have been approved since 2015; five more are awaiting approval.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm, caused extensive destruction in New Orleans and its environs. More than half of the 1,200 people who died were Black and 80 percent of the homes that were destroyed belonged to Black residents. The mostly Black neighborhoods of New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward were hit hardest by Katrina because while the levees in white areas had been shored up after earlier hurricanes, these poorer neighborhoods had received less government funding for flood protection. After the hurricane, when initial plans for rebuilding were in process, white neighborhoods again got priority, even if they had experienced less flooding. Eventually federal funds were directed toward the rebuilding of parts of the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East and the strengthening of their levees.
In 2014, the city of Flint, MI, whose population is 56.6 percent Black, decided to draw its drinking water from the polluted Flint River in order to save money until a new pipeline from Lake Huron could be built. Previously the city had brought in treated drinking water from Detroit. Because the river had been used by industry as an illegal waste dump for many years, the water was corrosive, but officials failed to treat it. As a result, the water leached lead from the city’s aging pipelines. Officials claimed the water was safe, but more than 40 percent of the homes had elevated lead levels. As almost 100,000 residents — including 9,000 children — drank lead-laced water, lead levels in the children’s blood doubled and tripled in some neighborhoods, putting them at high risk for neurological damage.
In October, 2015, the city began importing water from Detroit again. An ongoing project to replace lead service pipes is expected to be complete by the end of November. And just recently, Flint victims were awarded a settlement of $600 million, with 80 percent of it designated for the affected children.
Steps to achieve environmental justice
As the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, Catherine Flowers works to implement the best practices to reduce environmental injustice. Here are some key strategies she prescribes.
- Acknowledge the damage and try to repair it.
- Clean up sites where environmental damage has been done.
- Create an equitable system for decision-making so there is not an undue burden placed on disadvantaged communities. “Lobbyists that represent these [polluting] companies shouldn’t have more influence than the people who live in the area that are impacted by it,” said Flowers. “We need to make sure that the people that live in the community are sitting at the table when decisions are being made about what’s located in their community.”
- Call out the officials who are making decisions that are not in the best interest of the people they represent.
- Vote to put in place representatives that listen to their constituents rather than the people and companies that donate to them.
- Provide climate training to help people become more engaged. For example, the Climate Reality Project (Flowers sits on its board of directors) trains everyday people to fight for solutions and change in their communities.
- Partner with universities to conduct peer-reviewed studies of health impacts to help validate and draw attention to the experiences of disadvantaged communities.
- Build cleaner and greener. “We cannot discount the impact this could have on communities around the world,” said Flowers. “If we don’t pollute and we have a Green New Deal to build better, cleaner, and greener, then we won’t have these environmental justice issues.”