USA: Racial justice and climate change
By Natalie Ambrosio
The relationship between race and climate change is too often ignored. The recent protests for racial justice and police reform call attention to the fact that racism is still deeply embedded in our institutions and public policies. In the United States, people of color are disproportionately affected by polluting industries and climate change. A long legacy of racist housing policy and weak environmental protections contribute to this disproportionate exposure, coupled with systemic issues related to public health, education and wealth.
As part of our commitment to help raise awareness of the nexus between racial equity and climate change, this article will provide a brief overview of environmental injustice issues in the U.S., as well as highlight the disproportionate impacts of climate change on Black communities and people of color.
Disclaimer: We are aware that the history of environmental justice in the U.S. is deep and complex, and this short piece cannot do justice to the complex web of issues and suffering imposed on minorities. We hope this blog post provides an entry point for identifying organizations and researchers with greater expertise and a long history of commitment to environmental justice.
Housing Discrimination and Environmental Injustice
The disenfranchisement of Black communities and other people of color in the United States includes discrimination in terms of access to education, public transportation, recreation, employment, healthcare and housing. Environmental racism is just one manifestation of this oppression and is particularly evident in housing and development.
Black communities and other people of color have been relegated to neighborhoods that have greater exposure to environmental pollution and toxicity than primarily white neighborhoods. Housing and lending policies have historically limited options for Black communities and people of color and concentrated these communities in locations with higher exposure to environmental hazards. In the 1930s, federal housing policy actively and intentionally contributed to segregation, subsidizing development for middle to low-income white households and prohibiting people of color from purchasing those homes. Relegated to live only in certain areas, entire minority communities were then “redlined,” labeling home buyers’ mortgages as too risky to insure. “Threat of infiltration of negro[s]” and “Infiltration of: Negroes” were often listed as reasons for giving a community a low grade, and for deeming the community as “hazardous.”
In America, where homeownership is the single most important source of equity- and wealth-building, Black households have historically been shut out of higher-value neighborhoods and have been systematically prevented from benefiting from the upward mobility and financial resources that accompany homeownership. Factors like redlining, disenfranchisement and the operation of toxic facilities in Black neighborhoods means that homes in majority Black neighborhoods are valued at half the price of homes with non-Black residents. Lack of opportunity to build equity through home ownership is a key reason that African American wealth equals just 5% of white wealth in the U.S.
Furthermore, as of 2019 over 30 million Americans live in areas where water infrastructure has violated safety standards. For example, in rural and primarily Black Lowndes County, Alabama, only around 20% of the population has a sewer system—the others have pipes deploying raw sewage into their yards. Navajo Nation residents rely on water contaminated by uranium mining, and infections and cancer are rampant in these communities. Lack of access to safe water leads some residents to drive for hours to obtain safe water, which in turn hampers education and work efforts, further perpetuating inequities. There is a nationwide trend in lack of enforcement and regulation around safety standards for drinking water, and often low-income, Black, Indigenous and other people of color who lack political clout endure the most severe impacts. In 2017 the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the U.S. drinking-water infrastructure as a D, estimating a need for $1 trillion investment in the next 25 years to prevent further erosion of pipes.
After decades of discriminatory housing policies and inequitable development, Black communities are still disproportionately exposed to pollution and environmental toxins, leading to detrimental health impacts which are often compounded by lack of access to suitable healthcare. This disproportionate exposure has been well-documented since the 1980s when a nationwide study by The United Church of Christ Commission on Racial Justice found that race was the strongest determinant of the location of commercial hazardous waste sites. Nationally, “African Americans are 75 percent more likely than Caucasians to live in fence-line communities—those next to commercial facilities whose noise, odor, traffic or emissions directly affect the population.”
Disproportionate Exposure to Climate Impacts and Climate Justice
While climate justice has multiple dimensions, at its core it refers to the understanding that those who are least responsible for climate change suffer its gravest consequences. Globally this manifests in developing countries experiencing the worst impacts of climate change, while their industrialized counterparts bear the responsibility for the carbon emissions responsible for worldwide climate impacts. From an intergenerational perspective, today’s younger generations are inheriting the consequences of older generations’ actions related to climate change, with Greta Thunberg a vocal advocate for generational justice.
Climate justice also manifests through racial inequity, in particular in the U.S., where the impacts of climate change will not be distributed evenly. While Black communities and other people of color bear the greatest health costs of industrial activity and of physical climate hazards, they also bear less responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions causing the climate crisis. While individuals within these communities can be highly resilient, confronting social and economic disparities daily, these communities also often lack the resources to adequately prepare for and respond to the health impacts of pollution and physical impacts of climate change.
Flooding in the United States disproportionately affects Black residents, as Black neighborhoods are often in low-lying floodplains, with impermeable surfaces and a lack of effective flood protection infrastructure. In many cases, nearby chemical sites, refineries and other industrial infrastructure are also located in flood zones, multiplying the risks of exposure to toxic chemicals during storms. While many middle-income white households face difficult decisions about whether to permanently leave their home in the floodplain, not everyone has the economic freedom to make such decisions. In many cases, Black residents and other people of color do not have access to the transportation or the savings to evacuate at a moment’s notice, let alone permanently relocate.
The overexposure of Black neighborhoods to flood risk, alongside the lack of resilience investment in these communities, also leads to disproportionate vulnerability to the impacts of storms. During Hurricane Katrina, Black individuals were among those that were least likely to evacuate, with access to transportation being a key factor. The city’s four largest public housing buildings, primarily occupied by Black residents, were permanently closed after incurring storm damage. Four of the seven zip codes enduring the costliest flood damage due to Hurricane Katrina were at least 75% Black and the community most damaged by Hurricane Harvey was 49% nonwhite. This is a common trend across the nation.
These statistics, stem partially from a history of inequitable funding. In 1965 Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans, causing the most damage in New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward, which are primarily Black neighborhoods. This catalyzed investment in levees to protect New Orleans from flood waters, but these investments went primarily to predominantly White neighborhoods which were not as damaged and already had some flood protection infrastructure. This distribution of funds foreshadowed the unequal distribution of impacts when Katrina hit decades later.
Sea level rise
Global sea levels have risen by about eight inches over the past century, with the rate of rise increasing recently. In responding to sea level rise, jurisdictions tend to take one of two approaches: invest in adaptation measures to keep the water out, or abandon an area to the rising seas. Studies show that low-income minority neighborhoods are more likely to be abandoned while higher-income predominately white neighborhoods tend more often to be protected. One reason for this is decision-making that relies only on financial indicators. Resilience investments driven by cost benefit analysis focusing only on the property values, rather than looking at social and cultural characteristics of a community, further contribute to the inequitable impact of climate change.
Relatedly, as the risks of sea level rise become more evident there is an increased risk of “blue-lining” – a term used by Tulane Professor Jesse Keenan, to express its connection to redlining. Many Black and low-income populations that did not receive investment in sound sewage and drainage systems due to redlining experience the worst impacts of flooding today. As banks and investors learn about exposure to floods and sea level rise, they are increasingly hesitant to offer funding to these neighborhoods. Yet without investment, communities are unable to improve their infrastructure and build resilience, further reinforcing the cycle of racial injustice.
Research in Miami-Dade County, Florida found a positive relationship between price appreciation and elevation in most study cities. This shift can potentially lead to ‘climate gentrification’—another term coined by Prof. Keenan, as minority populations migrate towards more exposed areas. For example, in Miami’s higher elevation, traditionally minority neighborhoods such as Liberty City and Little Haiti, rising property values are making homes unaffordable for residents, reflecting the new preference for high elevation. This combination of being priced out of higher elevation neighborhoods and property values decreasing in more exposed coastal areas may further contribute to the cycle of disproportionate exposure to sea level rise among Black populations and other minority residents.
According to the World Resources Institute’s data, 20% of the U.S. currently experiences “high” or “extremely high” water stress, and this number is expected to increase significantly by midcentury. Population growth will further threaten drinking water supplies, and the impacts will be uneven. In 2014 the water table in Fairmead, an unincorporated town in California’s Central Valley with majority Black and Latino residents, dried up and the citizens had to rely on donations and emergency relief for drinking water. Many of Fairmead’s residents are farmers, relying on water for their livelihoods as well as for human consumption, and water for irrigation comes from private wells that are only a few hundred feet deep. While these farmers cannot afford to drill deeper wells, nearby corporate farms can afford to drill wells up to 1,000 feet deep and are thus less affected by the dwindling water table. Climate change will exacerbate existing inequities around water access, particularly for Black and Indigenous communities.
Extreme heat kills more residents annually in the U.S. than any other climate hazard. Temperatures can vary by as much as 20ºF between neighborhoods due to the urban heat island effect. The hottest neighborhoods tend to be disproportionately covered in concrete and home to low-income and Black residents. Research shows that these urban development trends are connected to the history of racist housing policies. Residents in low-income and Black communities are also less likely than middle-income and white populations to have well-insulated homes, access to consistent air-conditioning or cool, safe public gathering spaces. Meanwhile, the asthma, heart disease and other chronic illnesses precipitated by exposure to air pollution, increases the health risks of extreme heat.
Due to a history of segregation and systematic economic oppression Black communities are consistently relegated to areas most exposed to flooding and extreme heat, while at the same time lacking resilience investment and access to educational, health and transportation resources to effectively prepare for and respond to disasters. Investing in equitable climate change adaptation is one facet of pursuing climate justice. Equitable adaptation requires involving community members in every step of decision-making and reviewing adaptation options based on the exposure and vulnerability of the community in question, as well as the potential for downstream impacts on others. We discuss this subject in our blog on equity as a cornerstone of adaptation.