Low-Income Americans Hit Hardest by Climate Change

July 22, 2015

Climate change can be a slippery concept to wrap our minds around. The timeline from when we started putting carbon into the atmosphere, to the hopes for 100% renewable energy, is nearly 200 years. Some of the most dramatic effects, like melting glaciers, are taking place on stages far removed from many of our everyday lives. 

But depending on where you live— and what community you are part of— many of  the impacts are already here. And they are pilling up disproportionately in poorer communities across the world. The concept of climate justice calls us to pay close attention to who is reaping the benefits of a fossil fuel-powered lifestyle and who is bearing the brunt of the impacts. 

A cartoon image of a city

Climate Justice has Roots in Environmental Justice

Climate justice is a still-developing and fluid concept that draws a lot from environmental justice, a movement that addresses the social and health impacts of pollution on low income and minority communities. Here in the US, environmental justice galvanized around years of studies that show how minority groups have a much higher rate of illness and death due to exposure to all types of pollution, from tailpipe exhaust to factory smoke, to the fallout from mountaintop mining. Recent studies have expanded this trend from a mostly urban demographic, finding a similar pattern of impact from the effects of nitrogen dioxide (from cars and industrial sources) on minorities across all states, cities and rural regions. 

Leaders in the environmental justice movement, like the NAACP, seek to challenge policies that unfairly put minorities in harm's way, while building the power of these communities to voice their concerns when it comes to siting and regulating sources of pollution. Other non-profits, like Green For All, are championing inner city and low-income community solutions, jobs and opportunities as the country works to develop a new green economy. 


“We’re all impacted by climate change, but we’re not all impacted equally.”

Climate justice shares the environmental justice perspective of addressing the unequal distribution of impacts. But here’s the distinction: while environmental justice targets the sources and causes of pollution, climate justice tackles the global problem of climate change and the burden of disasters, and resource shortages on low-income and minority communities.

When you look at the race and class disparities that came out after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, a disturbing picture of climate justice in the US starts to gel. Racial inequality already exists in America, in terms of which minorities live where, what services they can expect, and how they are treated by police and authorities. And that's just to start. A tragic natural catastrophe, like Katrina, only amplified a long history of inequity, showing the nation a tragic picture of which groups are allowed a stake in disaster relief. 

With climate change, the US is facing everything from increased hurricanes and flooding, to record droughts and crop shortages— pushing the problems that come with poverty and environmental justice even further. As this insightful blog from 350.org notes, climate change and social justice are inextricably intertwined. Or, to quote the author, Deirdre Smith, “We’re all impacted by climate change, but we’re not all impacted equally.”


Climate Change Intensifies Environmental Justice Issues

The pollution from a nearby coal power plant may be the cause of asthma, but climate change caused by burning fossil fuels is leading to heat waves that make asthma even worse. Often the problems are subtle but systemic: higher electricity bills may lead to people on fixed incomes going without power, while increased storms can lead to mold blooming in substandard housing units.

In California, where a record drought continues to parch the state, water usage is sharply divided across class lines, with poorer communities skipping baths while richer ones continue to hose down their vast lawns. Meanwhile, some poor and rural California communities have seen their wells go dry for years, and are relying solely on donated water. It’s unclear whether state legislation aiming to conserve resources with higher water prices will have much affect on affluent communities who can simply afford to pay almost any cost.


Solving Climate Change Can Also Mean Achieving Climate Justice

Climate change is only making things tougher for poor, minority communities that live predominately in harm's way without equal resources, economically or socially, to prepare or recover. From hurricanes to droughts, climate justice is a tale of extremes— both in terms of weather and access to what’s needed to adapt and survive. That makes it even more critical that all communities have equal representation in disaster planning, resource allocation, relief, and other avenues of adapting to increasingly volatile natural impacts. Which is why leading civil rights groups, like the NAACP, are teaming up with environmental non-profits, like the Sierra Club, to address the issues at stake.

Check out NAACP’s “Game Changers” for a breakdown of the climate justice topic, or try one of these 20 things they suggest we can do to help make positive change. Locally, communities hardest hit from Katrina are organizing on their own to fight back against urban and suburban development that would once again make them more vulnerable to flooding. On the west coast, non-profits, like California Water Foundation, are working to reform the Golden State’s outdated and dysfunctional water management.

California is also on the front line of reaping a huge benefit to solving climate change— the chance to rethink how we do things in the first place, and make things right from the start. An exciting example is California’s cap-and-trade system, which sets a limit on carbon pollution emitted by industry, and then auctions off a limited number of permits for those emissions. This basically puts a market price on carbon, generating over $872 million for the state since the program was set up 18 months ago. Now, California is committing one quarter of that revenue to housing public transit projects in the low income and minority communities that are experiencing the highest impacts from pollution. It’s a huge win for environmental justice advocates, and an example of using progress on limiting carbon emissions to help solve the core issues of climate justice.

California’s cap-and-trade system isn’t rocket science. In fact, President Obama proposed a national cap-and-trade system in his first term, only to be derailed by partisan politics. In other worlds, we have the solutions to do this, right now. Let’s keep the pressure up for a broad and long-lasting agreement this December at the UN Climate Summit in Paris— 100% renewable by 2050 is the path we need to take to curb climate change.