How black communities are getting screwed by climate change

By Michelle Klug

Extreme heat. Drought. Super storms. Rising seas. Toxic air. What sounds like the plot of a Michael Bay movie is the reality in the U.S. right now thanks to climate change. But not all Americans experience these symptoms equally.

Neighborhoods and areas with large black populations are feeling the effects of climate change more strongly. A lot of that has to do with real estate: proximity to coastlines or the extreme heat in dense, urban areas makes people more vulnerable. Many black communities ended up in these areas as a result of segregation and policies like redlining. This disenfranchisement still fuels inequality today.

Take a look at this map of Oakland from the 1930s. It shows redlining, a racist housing policy that denied home loans to people of color for decades. Redlining preserved segregation in West Oakland, which is still a community of color facing poverty and pollution. Being situated between a port and highways, the neighborhood is subject to substantially worse air quality than other parts of the city.

A map from a homeowner’s association showing “credit worthiness” in Oakland during the 1930s. The red zones signified “hazardous.” Courtesy of LaDale Winling/Mapping Inequality

Across the country, black Americans are more likely to live in warmer neighborhoods than white Americans, and are 2.5 times more likely to die of heat-related causes such as heat stroke. Climate change has brought not only a steady increase in average temperatures (16 out of the past 17 warmest years have occurred since 2001), but also longer, stronger heat waves, which are intensified in certain urban areas.

Crowded, mostly concrete urban areas with little tree cover heat up fast. Heat radiates off of roads and buildings with little ventilation in a pattern called the heat island effect. In some cases these neighborhoods, which also tend to be occupied by low-income residents and minorities, can be 22°F hotter than surrounding areas.

On top of that, poorer urban communities are often less equipped to deal with oppressive heat, having less access to transportation, medical care and cooling centers. Access to air conditioning can also be a game changer. This study evaluating heat-related deaths looked at four U.S. cities and found black residents half as likely to have central air conditioning.

Another heat-related issue arises when scorching temperatures fuel air pollution. Temperatures over 90°F are correlated with greater concentrations of ground-level ozone.

This ground-level or “bad” ozone is created when emissions from cars or power plants mix with heat and sunlight, causing a chemical reaction. Long-term exposure is linked to a higher mortality rate from stroke, heart disease and lung cancer, and African-Americans are more likely to suffer from this type of air pollution. In fact, black seniors are three times more likely to die from smog pollution–related health issues. Black children are also four times as likely to die from asthma, a disease linked to air pollution.

In the South, black communities face different climate change-related issues: A quarter of the black population in the U.S. is concentrated in the five Atlantic states most prone to hurricane damage (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida).

They’re also more likely to be in high-risk areas within those states. Communities of color have historically been relegated to lower, flood-prone areas. They may be further endangered as climate change is linked to more severe and frequent hurricanes, which NOAA predicts will continue in 2017.

During Hurricane Katrina, NIH research showed that historically segregated regions were more highly impacted. “Patterns of land development and residential segregation that occurred in New Orleans and the rest of the country over the twentieth century concentrated black residents in the lower-lying sections of the city, which led directly to their experiencing high rates of housing damage when the levees broke and floodwaters settled in the lowest parts of the city.”

A lack of functional infrastructure and the inability for residents to evacuate and receive emergency assistance during Hurricane Katrina contributed to the devastating effects felt most severely by low-income African-Americans.

“In most of the counties [with high black populations along the Gulf Coast], African-Americans are in a high vulnerable condition against hurricanes and natural disaster,” said NOAA researcher Tanveerul Islam.

Islam found the average income of black residents in these Gulf Coast communities is well below the national average, and this prevents communities from being able to prepare for and recover from hurricanes.

These same low-lying areas are also more likely to be impacted by sea level rise, and make no mistake, it’s rising: Extreme projections say by 2100 we could see a 1.8-meter rise, estimated to impact 13.1 million people.

Sea levels are rising at a higher rate along the Gulf Coast. Research predicts that 40–60 percent of Gulf Coast communities will be dealing with flooding caused by climate change by 2100, and it’s likely low-lying communities with high populations of black residents will be hit hard.

A UCS study looked at communities that are “chronically inundated” with the flooding that comes from rising sea levels, and found that low-lying areas in Louisiana are especially at risk. It concluded: “Centuries of structural racism and disenfranchisement have left these communities lacking the resources and services that help cities and towns prepare for impending disasters and recover when disaster strikes.”

With top U.S. leaders charging forward with irresponsible environmental practices, ignorant to the dangers of climate change despite the warning of scientists and other world leaders, making change has largely fallen to individuals and communities.

A local neighborhood group recently filed a civil rights complaint against the city of Oakland, claiming that West Oakland, which has a large black population, is experiencing much higher rates of pollution compared to surrounding areas occupied by non-minority residents. The pollution, they claim, is making them sick and shortening life expectancies. The result is an ongoing federal investigation into the city of Oakland’s policies.

Grassroots efforts may result in small changes for neighborhoods or cities, but to subdue the devastating effects of climate change, state and federal governments need to not only move aggressively away from fossil fuels, but recognize and address the lopsided harm they’re causing for our country’s black communities.