As environmental disasters strike with greater frequency, the conversation around climate action is at its peak. In the last year alone, the United States lost $95 billion in damages resulting from record-breaking climate disasters (1). The state of Louisiana in late August of 2020 was battered by Hurricane Laura resulting in $13 billion in damages and a death toll of 28 people; elsewhere in the United State, wildfires in Washington state, Oregon and California claimed more than 30 lives and created an estimated $16.5 billion in damages (2). In Texas just this year, 58 people died and the state lost near $50 billion in damages as a result of an unusual winter storm that overwhelmed the state’s energy infrastructure (3). At a global scale, the story is no different with Australian wildfires lasting 5 months and resulting in over 400 deaths (4). The wildfires also claimed the lives of nearly 480 million wild animals, and the damage cost was estimated at approximately $1.3 billion (5).
Accordingly, world leaders have prepared for climate action with more than 110 countries committing to climate neutrality by the year 2050 (6). India surpassed its goal of adding 20 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2022, the United Kingdom passed a Climate Change Act in 2008 which aimed to significantly decrease nationwide greenhouse gas emissions, and Switzerland adopted a carbon tax to further drive down emissions (7). In the United States, the Biden Administration re-signed the Paris Climate Agreement earlier this year and the U.S. Department of Defense is establishing a working group for climate change.
Despite the increased efforts in the United States by the Biden administration for climate action, the conversation is often framed as climate change manifesting in a series of recent and future environmental disasters. While it is important that plans are made to prepare for climate change, the conversation must also center on the reality of the impact of environmental racism on marginalized communities that have contributed the least to climate change. World leaders should not only ask themselves how to mitigate climate change but also how to protect the most vulnerable communities and redress the harm perpetrated by the government and corporations against marginalized communities.
Climate action plans must confront how corporations and governments in the backyards of black, brown, and indigenous communities have destroyed the environment. Environmental racism has had and continues to have tangible intergenerational effects on the physical health and reality of marginalized communities that will only worsen with increasing climate disasters.
According to a 2017 Harvard University study, long-term exposure to air pollution increases mortality (8). The risk of death increases as a result, and pollution is higher in self-identified racial minorities and people with low income. In Griffin Park, a predominantly low-income African American community in Orlando, Florida, people of color are surrounded by two major highways which increases their exposure to transportation-related pollution, part of a persisting trend negatively affecting already marginalized communities (9). Many residents of Griffin Park report asthma and respiratory problems that they attribute to the poor air quality and pollution. A 2007 study in North Carolina found solid waste facilities are disproportionately located in low-income communities of color presenting health concerns due to the communities’ relatively smaller amount of resources that impede addressing potential issues arising from solid waste facilities (10). A national study by researchers at the University of Michigan reports a 30-year pattern of hazardous waste facilities disproportionately located in low-income and minority communities (11). Multiple studies have found a relationship between residential proximity to environmental hazards and health outcomes including birth defects, childhood cancers, chronic respiratory symptoms, etc (12).
The systematic targeting of low-income communities of color reflects in government and corporate decisions. The locations of solid and hazardous waste facilities and highways is just as detrimental as the potential impacts of natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, not only in terms of infrastructure but also in the cumulative impact on the health of communities of color. As a result, the conversation around climate action must not only be in the form of metrics but should also directly factor in equity.
- Flavelle, Christopher. “U.S. Disaster Costs Doubled in 2020, Reflecting Costs of Climate Change.” The New York Times. The New York Times, January 7, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/07/climate/2020-disaster-costs.html?smtyp=cur&smid=tw-nytimes.
- Ibid; Limaye, Vijay. “Shattering Records, Climate Disasters Fueled Misery in 2020.” NRDC, January 15, 2021. https://www.nrdc.org/experts/vijay-limaye/shattering-records-climate-disasters-fueled-misery-2020.;Morgan, Samantha. “28 Deaths in Louisiana Attributed to Hurricane Laura.” https://www.kplctv.com, September 10, 2020. https://www.kplctv.com/2020/08/27/deaths-attributed-hurricane-laura/.
- Bogel-burroughs, Nicholas, and Giulia Mcdonnell Nieto. “Texas Winter Storm: What to Know.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 20, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/20/us/texas-winter-storm-explainer.htm.; Williams, Annabelle. “Damages Tied to the 'Life-Threatening Crisis' Caused by the Winter Storm in Texas Could Approach $50 Billion.” Business Insider. Business Insider, February 19, 2021. https://www.businessinsider.com/winter-snow-storm-blackout-texas-damages-could-near-50-billion-2021-2.
- “Australia Bushfires: Hundreds of Deaths Linked to Smoke, Inquiry Hears.” BBC News. BBC, May 26, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-52804348.
- Reality Check Team. “Australia Fires: How Do We Know How Many Animals Have Died?” BBC News. BBC, January 4, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/50986293.; disasterphilanthropy.org. Accessed March 26, 2021. https://disasterphilanthropy.org/disaster/2019-australian-wildfires/.
- “The Race to Zero Emissions, and Why the World Depends on It | | UN News.” United Nations. United Nations. Accessed March 26, 2021. https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/12/1078612.
- Rosen, Julia. “Here's How 6 Countries Are Stepping up to Meet the Paris Climate Goals.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2019-09-22/how-countries-are-meeting-climate-change-goals.
- Di, Qian, Et Al., Author Affiliations From the Departments of Environmental Health (Q.D., R.E. Berger and Others, S. A. Madhi and Others, F. P. Polack and Others, and N. Dagan and Others. “Air Pollution and Mortality in the Medicare Population: NEJM.” New England Journal of Medicine, June 29, 2017. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1702747.
- Craven, Julia. “Even Breathing Is A Risk In One Of Orlando's Poorest Neighborhoods.” HuffPost. HuffPost, January 23, 2018. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/florida-poor-black-neighborhood-air-pollution_n_5a663a67e4b0e5630072746e.
- Jennifer M. Norton, Steve Wing, Hester J. Lipscomb, Jay S. Kaufman, Stephen W. Marshall, and Altha J. Cravey. "Race, Wealth, and Solid Waste Facilities in North Carolina." Environmental Health Perspectives 115, no. 9 (2007): 1344-350.
- Mohai, Paul, and Saha, Robin. "Which Came First, People or Pollution? Assessing the Disparate Siting and Post-siting Demographic Change Hypotheses of Environmental Injustice." Environmental Research Letters 10, no. 11 (2015): 115008.
- Brender, Jean D, Maantay, Juliana A, and Chakraborty, Jayajit. "Residential Proximity to Environmental Hazards and Adverse Health Outcomes." American Journal of Public Health (1971) 101, no. S1 (2011): S37-52