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While Nature Might Not Discriminate, the Effects of Climate Change Do

For far too long, American popular opinion has relegated climate change to the ranks of pedagogical scientists, clearly siloed from our everyday lives. It is with this in mind that a number of environmental advocates kicked off a campaign this spring in support of President Obama's Clean Power Plan.
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For far too long, American popular opinion has relegated climate change to the ranks of pedagogical scientists, clearly siloed from our everyday lives. It is with this in mind that a number of environmental advocates kicked off a campaign this spring in support of President Obama's Clean Power Plan. The legality of the EPA's carbon rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Power Plan will be determined in the State of West Virginia vs. the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)--the court case was originally scheduled to come before a three-person panel at the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on June 2. As of last week, it has been delayed to September 27--but will come before a whole court.

The campaign in favor of the Clean Power Plan is unique in that its rhetoric borrows from the gay rights movement: Joshua Dorner, a strategist at the Washington political communications firm SKDKnickerbocker who has experience working on same-sex marriage campaigns, told the New York Times, "On gay marriage, it was that everyone has a friend, a neighbor, a sibling who could be impacted." He feels we can now apply this same message to climate change in "showing how it directly impacts people's lives."

Dorner and fellow advocates are correct in their assessments of climate change's impact and reach; their arguments are further strengthened by the immediacy of the problem at hand. After all, as President Obama declared in 2013 when introducing his Clean Power Plan, "those who are already feeling the effects of climate change don't have time to deny it--they're already dealing with it."

But what is missing in such rhetoric is that while everyone on the planet can be, or perhaps is being, directly impacted by climate change, certain populations--namely, racial minorities and the economically disadvantaged--are adversely affected.

On the domestic level, regardless of climate change, we know that people of color--especially women and girls of color--face far more societal barriers than other Americans. Black family earnings and wages are far lower than that of white, Hispanic and Asian Americans; the black child poverty rate currently measures 38 percent. The unemployed and immigrant populations are routinely denied social services such as access to health care. Keeping all of this in mind, let's think about the social justice implications of climate change specifically for these underserved American populations.

Natural Disasters: Katrina, Sandy, and Why Who Was Hit Mattered

Increasing global surface temperatures are leading to the development of higher intensity storms, increased wind speeds, and rising sea levels. Thus, climate change can be held accountable for a number of natural disasters. We need look no further than Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy for evidence of just how differently such natural disasters affect different populations of people.

Hurricane Katrina--the costliest and one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history--hit Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama in August of 2005. As of 2004, the U.S. Census Bureau had Mississippi ranked as the state with the highest poverty rate. Louisiana was the second worst, and Alabama the eighth. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculated that of the 5.8 million people who lived in the areas hit hardest by the storm, over one million of these people lived in poverty, and over one-third of them were black. Zooming in on New Orleans, 27.9 percent of the city's 485,000 person population was categorized as poor at the time of the storm. 328,000 of those people were comprised of blacks, and 34.9 percent of them were poor.

We know that the high percentage of poor blacks living in New Orleans at the time Katrina hit is no coincidence. Indeed, the demographic makeup of any American city is anything but natural, rather, it is more often than not a direct result of various Federal Housing Administration (FHA) racially restrictive policies. As recognized by Paul Jargowsky, "...We are witnessing a nationwide return of concentrated poverty that is racial in nature... These neighborhoods are not the value-free outcome of the impartial workings of the housing market. Rather, in large measure, they are the inevitable and predictable consequences of deliberate policy choices."

Of this largely poor, black population hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina, many were not able to evacuate. While some were rescued despite inadequate government response, many were not; and over a decade later, New Orleans continues to rebuild. As Jane Daugherty asserts, "The poor and near-poor tend to be clustered in areas most vulnerable to flood waters. And once their homes and neighborhoods are damaged, these communities don't return 'to normal' with the same speed as nearby, more well-off areas do."

Superstorm Sandy of 2012 did hit those well-off areas, and serves as an example of how privileged populations can respond to natural disasters (or use their voices to be helped). Sandy is second only to Katrina in natural disaster costliness to the U.S. However, the demographics of the people hit hardest by Sandy--residents of New Jersey and New York City--starkly contrast the victim makeup of Katrina. The median home value in Ocean County, NJ was 162 percent of the national average at the time of the storm; it was 244 percent in Monmouth County, NJ; and in New York County, homes were worth 387 percent of the national average. The majority of these ethnically diverse yet largely economically privileged people had the resources--and perhaps not altogether mutually exclusive government attention and support--to safely evacuate flood zones and rebuild after the storm.

It is true that within New York City in particular there are gross disparities with regards to income and poverty levels. Over one-fifth of the city's population has consistently lived below the poverty line; the median income for this poorest fifth of the city was $8,844 annually at the time of Sandy. This is compared to the median income for the highest fifth, which was $223,205. Such vast inequality is critical to the narrative when discussing Sandy; wealthier inhabitants of Lower Manhattan had the ability to flee their apartments for hotels uptown whereas it was a very different story for residents of the Rockaways, Queens. Of course, the magnitude of the storm in these different areas plays a role in this comparison as well; but personal means and safety nets that vary drastically between neighborhoods based on the systematic relegation of poor people and people of color to certain areas was evident with Superstorm Sandy. Ultimately, New York City and its surrounding metropolitan area have enough resources--and therefore, loud voices--so that, consequently, Sandy's victims were generally helped during and after the storm in a timely fashion.

Flint's Water Crisis

Let us turn to Flint, Michigan, the city that has been brought to the forefront of American news coverage since 2015 due to their current water crisis. Though the pollution of the city's drinking water--caused by a water supply mandate put forth by the state's government--cannot be qualified as a direct effect of climate change, we should eye such water issues as interrelated given that realities such as drought are direct byproducts of climate change and are sure to continue exacerbating the water problems we already have. In Flint--a city that has been in declared state of financial emergency since 2011--people of color (mostly blacks) make up approximately 60 percent of the population. 40 percent of these people live in poverty, and the median household income in 2014 was a mere $24,679. The blue-collar town fueled by the auto industry is also characteristic to racial and economic segregation solidified by decades of housing and zoning policies.

Indeed, as Jessica Trounstine writes for the Washington Post, "If Flint had been mostly white and mostly well off, it is possible that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and governor would have listened more attentively [to the warning signs of the water crisis]. But what's even more likely is that the deep financial woes that led to this series of disastrous choices would never have taken place."

It was thanks to the medical team of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Flint's Hurley Medical Center, that the harmful effects of the drinking water were realized: Hanna-Attisha was testing toddlers with rashes and hair loss for lead levels, which she found to be doubling and tripling. As we know, lead poisoning has long-term health consequences. With poverty rates and unemployment rates as low as they are in Flint, this paints a grim picture for everyone who has been affected by the water crisis being able to receive the ongoing medical attention they need.

Air Pollution and Access to Health Care

Indeed, the disparities Americans face with regards to access to health care will increasingly rear their ugly heads in the wake of climate change. As I've written before, the burning of fossil fuels for energy is not only steadily depleting the Earth's ozone layer--it is simultaneously polluting the air we breathe. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air pollution has been the cause of death for at least 3.7 million people worldwide under the age of sixty just in the year 2012. WHO qualifies most of the world's cities as having unsafe--and deteriorating--air quality levels. Los Angeles, the American city with the highest rate of pollution, has less than one-eighth the amount of concentrated fine particulate matter (PM2.5)--the world's primary air pollutant--in its air as Delhi, the world's most polluted city. It's worth noting that Los Angeles still has twice the amount of PM2.5 WHO considers to be safe.

The health problems posed by climate change yield particularly alarming implications for countries like the United States that lack universal health care. Once again, marginalized populations are hit the hardest. Given that American health care coverage is still primarily granted by way of employer, the reality is that blacks followed by Hispanics are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to medical access. Unemployment rates for black women and men have been consistently higher than that of any other race in the U.S., followed by Hispanics. The total unemployment rate for black Americans sixteen years and older 10.5 percent in 2014 and 8.8 percent in 2015; Hispanics were next highest at rates of 6.5 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively. The same reality holds true for undocumented immigrants to the U.S.: Even Obamacare does not grant coverage to this population.

As advocates press on for support in the days leading up to West Virginia v. the EPA, their all-inclusive rhetoric would be most convincing should it acknowledge how drastic this spectrum on which climate change treats different groups of people is.

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