Seeking Climate Justice at Home

Global Women's Project | Mon, Jul 28, 2008

By Theresa Polk
Source: Center of Concern

Climate change affects us all, but it doesn’t affect us all in the same ways or to the same extent. There is widespread international consensus, affirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that people living in poverty around the world will be more directly and severely impacted, conjuring images of the devastation wreaked by Cyclone Nargis in Burma, drought exacerbating the food crisis in East Africa and rising sea levels affecting the populations of small islands states.

But what about domestically; what about the U.S.? Wildfires in California, floods in the Midwest and a new hurricane season are making us more conscious of the domestic implications of climate change, but are some of us affected more than others? A new study released June 24th by the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative says, emphatically, YES.

The study looks at how African Americans, despite emitting on average 20% less greenhouse gases, are disproportionately impacted. Some of the findings include:

  • Respiratory illnesses are predicted to become more widespread and severe with climate change. African Americans have a 36% higher rate of asthma incidents, which are 3 times as likely to lead to emergency room visits or death, yet 20% of African Americans have no health insurance.
  • Heat waves are becoming more frequent and intense. Forty-three percent of African Americans live in so-called urban “heat islands,” dominated by asphalt and concrete surfaces that absorb and retain heat. They are less likely to have access to adaptive measures, such as air-conditioning or insulation, leading to fatality rates that are nearly double.
  • The six states with the highest African American populations are all in the Atlantic hurricane belt. African Americans are less likely to have access to transportation for evacuation purposes, as well as homeowners insurance or other resources to assist in rebuilding. Meanwhile, racism, stereotypes and fear often hinder rescue and relief efforts.

But perhaps the most critical issue raised by the report is the marginalization of the voices, experiences and contributions of people of color and low-income communities in the debate and search for solutions. Those most impacted and best able to articulate their needs are being sidelined in policy discussions. Little wonder then that what is on the table should fall so far short of what is needed.

Catholic Social Thought encourages us to judge policy and base decision-making in terms of the repercussions for the most vulnerable, which as this report reminds us, is not only an ethical consideration, but a practical one too. The climate policies that best serve African Americans, by generating new green jobs, reducing pollution levels, holding corporations accountable and addressing institutionalized racism, are the same policies that best serve all of us, in creating a more just, vibrant and ecologically-sustainable nation and world.

Posted by Theresa Polk, Project Associate, Ecology and Development.