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How Communities Of Color Are Hurt Most By Climate Change

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Climate change is affecting all of us. But, like many other challenges in society, it’s hurting communities of color the most.

The racial wealth gap is the result of systemic racism eating away at financial opportunities for people of color. They’re paid less than their white counterparts, even when they have college degrees, which limits their opportunities to build their savings and invest.

Fewer financial resources means facing climate change is even harder for those communities.

How the Climate Gap Forces Communities of Color into Dangerous Living Situations

The research on the intersection of racial wealth inequality and climate change continues to emerge.

But there’s more research available on the climate gap—how people of color and low-income households will be hit hardest by the consequences of climate change—that gives us insight into the problem.

Economic factors are pivotal in explaining this uneven distribution.

Climate change means the world is growing hotter each year, and weather events are becoming more volatile. A 2009 report from the University of Southern California states consequences of climate change, including extreme heat, devastating floods and air pollution, result in higher risks of death for African Americans and low-income individuals compared to white and wealthier neighborhoods.

Systemic factors make communities of color more vulnerable to climate change. According to the American Public Health Association (APHA), communities of color are more likely to experience pre-existing health conditions and poor living conditions than their white counterparts. And a lack of power and representation in political and economic systems makes it difficult for these communities to build climate resilience, or the ability to prepare and respond to extreme events that occur due to climate change.

It’s no secret that our cities are still segregated, despite decades of outlawed housing discrimination, with low-income neighborhoods clustered in inner cities. These neighborhoods suffer what’s known as the “heat island” effect, where darker-colored materials used to construct roads and buildings don’t allow heat to escape at the same levels as less-industrial materials, such as soil and grass, making overall temperatures higher.

Numerous reports find these communities are less likely to have access to heat-coping tools, such as air conditioning, during extreme heat events. They’re also less likely to have access to a car to get to a cooler area or government-sponsored cooling station.

In California, for example, some regions are advised to stay indoors and avoid outdoor pollution exposure on hot days—which can often mean being stuck in a sweltering home without cool air. In South Los Angeles, where residents are predominantly people of color, nearly three-fifths of households did not have access to air conditioning in 2020. Sixty-four percent of the total  households in that neighborhood live below the poverty level.

Those percentages are similar to a 2009 report from the University of Southern California, showing that little progress had been made in the past decade to help these communities access resources to build endurance from climate change effects.

Beyond the impact of intense heat, severe weather—such as hurricanes—is becoming more frequent as a result of climate change. Low-lying areas, which are predominantly low-income and communities of color, are at risk of hurricanes causing catastrophic flooding. A study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found more than 30% of Black New Orleans residents didn’t own cars when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, making it difficult for them to leave ahead of the storm.

Without financial resources to access what are considered essentials for most—air conditioning, a car—communities of color can find themselves having to face the dangers of climate change head on, with little assistance.

It’s not as simple as telling these communities to save up their money and buy the tools needed to endure climate change effects. Low-income households use more than twice the proportion of their total income on food, energy and household needs as high-income households—and previous reports estimate that spending will continue to rise as climate change increases the prices of those necessities, further exacerbating the wealth gap.

And as the APHA points out, these communities are less likely to have insurance or the financial resources to rebuild or relocate when extreme weather destroys their homes.

Early Climate Resiliency Efforts Leave out Communities of Color

Though there are early efforts in place to battle climate change, resources aren’t distributed equally. Communities of color are largely left out of these programs.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a voluntary buy-out program for homeowners living in flood-prone areas. The program aims to move people away from areas where flooding is more likely to wipe out homes, a practice known as managed retreat.

An analysis of FEMA’s buyout program, however, finds that it’s mostly used in wealthier neighborhoods because they have the local government resources to implement such a program. As Anthropocene Magazine writer Sarah DeWeerdt writes, “The findings suggest that as programs are currently structured, managed retreat may be available only to relatively privileged communities. People in marginalized areas may be left on their own–either trapped in place or their community disintegrating through abandonment.”

Another program that could help communities manage increased electricity costs due to climate change—solar panel adoption—has consistently lower participation in disadvantaged communities.

According to an analysis in California, 5% of the most advantaged—the wealthiest—  communities statewide have eight times as much solar panel adoption as the most disadvantaged 5%.Although the state has offered subsidies to help low-income households install these panels, lower homeownership rates, language barriers and lack of awareness prevent these communities from taking advantage of the program.

Another study finds that even when income is taken out of the equation, neighborhoods of color have installed fewer solar facilities than predominantly white neighborhoods. Though the study didn’t uncover exactly why, some experts suggest racial discrimination has left these neighborhoods with barriers to solar panel adaptation, such as insufficient infrastructure.

What Are the Solutions?

The pervasive racial wealth gap makes it harder to make sure climate change solutions are distributed equitably.

Gerald Torres, professor of environmental justice at Yale University, says inclusive climate change solutions should increase the climate resilience of marginalized communities at risk, and they should include them in proposed solutions.

“As we move to transform the energy side of our economy, how can we do that and not leave some communities behind?” Torres says. He describes how solutions like improving infrastructure will have effects on other aspects of society, including where the funding will come from and how they’ll transform transit and jobs. “All of these issues will have a differential impact based on wealth.”

The APHA outlines potential ways to achieve health equity and climate resilience. Those strategies include bringing awareness to inequities, increasing community engagement and allocating more funding toward initiatives like infrastructure investments in historically neglected communities.

Fighting climate change is a big chunk of the Biden administration’s agenda. The president proposed a $14 billion increase in funds for tackling the climate crisis in his 2022 budget proposal,…

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