Climate change is one of the most important environmental issues the Black community faces. Black communities are unfairly burdened by the health effects of climate change, including deaths during heat waves and sickness caused by growing air pollution. Climate change issues are not currently being addressed in a fair and equitable manner. There is a lack of inclusiveness in the current climate change narrative, and the way of addressing these issues exacerbate existing inequalities. It is no surprise that communities that contribute the least to climate change, and feel the negative impacts first, worst, and longest, are seldom represented in the climate change discussion.
The disproportionate and unequal impact the climate crisis has on people of color and the poor is known as the climate gap. As local governments and federal agencies undertake efforts to address climate issues, communities of color and low income communities need to stay vigilant about the effects of those “solutions” on their communities. In the climate change fight, where there will be benefits and burdens, it is the community’s responsibility to hold decision-makers accountable.
According to Sociologist Dr. Robert Bullard, Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and often described as the father of environmental justice, the most vulnerable populations will suffer the earliest and most damage because of: where they live; limited income and economic means; and, lack of access to health care. Yet, they contribute the least to global warming. He adds that the African-American asthma rate is 35 percent higher than whites, hospitalization rate for African Americans and Latinos is three to four times the rate for whites, and that African Americans and Puerto Ricans are three times more likely to die from asthma-related causes than whites.
The average African-American household emits 20 percent fewer greenhouse gases than its white counterpart. Greenhouse gasses are gasses that trap heat in the atmosphere. The most common greenhouse gas emitted is carbon dioxide, a gas mostly generated by vehicles and power and manufacturing plants. According to a 2008 report by the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative:
African Americans are thirteen percent of the U.S. population and on average emit nearly twenty percent less greenhouse gases than non-Hispanic whites per capita. Though far less responsible for climate change, African Americans are significantly more vulnerable to its effects than non-Hispanic whites. Health, housing, economic well-being, culture, and social stability are harmed from such manifestations of climate change as storms, floods, and climate variability. African Americans are also more vulnerable to higher energy bills, unemployment, recessions caused by global energy price shocks, and a greater economic burden from military operations designed to protect the flow of oil to the U.S.
In the South, weather related disasters such as heat waves, floods, hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes, and tropical storms are expected to increase in intensity and frequency. Black, elderly, disabled, and lower income populations are also more socially vulnerable to adapting and adjusting to natural disasters. In addition, blacks have the highest poverty rate of any race in the U.S., with nearly 26 percent of African Americans living in poverty, compared to 14 percent of the rest of the country, according to the U.S. Census.
Lower income residents are less capable of fleeing climate-stressed neighborhoods and climate related disasters. One major example of these issues combining in one event is Hurricane Katrina. Climate experts see the response and fallout from the 2005 storm as an example of what could happen to poor and working-class residents when cash-strapped cities are presented with this type of challenge. The links between Atlanta and New Orleans are obvious. Both cities are viewed by young professionals of color as locations of opportunity in an economically sluggish South. Both have majority-black populations, large LGTBQ populations, receive a large percentage of regional tourism, and are considered major transportation hubs. Additionally, both cities continue to struggle with race, class, and economic issues. With so many similarities between the cities, Atlanta’s residents should view New Orleans’ response and recovery from Hurricane Katrina as a warning.
While Atlanta is definitely not coastal, it is not immune to many of the weather-related issues caused or intensified by climate change. Inevitably, the African-American community would not only bear the majority of the burdens, it will feel the negative impacts first, worst, and longest. A paper entitled “Local Warming: Consequences of Climate Change for Atlanta” by Dr. Judith Curry, climate scientist at Georgia Tech, discusses some specific impacts of climate change to the Atlanta area, focusing on human health, water resources, agriculture and forestry, air and water quality. Some relevant points include:
- Heat Waves: Heat related deaths in Atlanta are expected to increase from 78 annually now to anywhere from 96 to 247 people per year, with major heat waves associated with even greater loss of life. Human health concerns are greatest for lower income households that lack sufficient resources to improve insulation and install and operate air conditioning systems.
- Water: Atlanta can expect increased severe drought periods and more intense storms and heavy downpours. The increase in the severity of the rainstorms will increase the chances of flooding in low-lying areas. Coupled with a failing storm water system and massive highway runoff issues, water-related issues can deal a devastating blow to the local African-American community.
- Air Quality/Pollution: The current pace of global warming means that the number of unhealthy, “red alert” days for Atlanta’s air quality could double within the next three decades, if smog-forming pollution remains unchanged.
- Infectious Diseases: Increasing temperatures and humidity bring an increased risk of mosquito-borne diseases that are more commonly associated with tropical climates. The greatest threats to a warmer southeast U.S. are yellow fever and dengue, both serious diseases with significant fatality rates.
The point is that climate change is not just a global or even national issue. It affects us all where we live. The State of Georgia’s refusal to participate in any federal health care reform programs, its inclination to privatize vital social programs, and its opposition to any responsible environmental initiatives pose an alarming threat to the security and well being of Black and lower-income communities not only in the city of Atlanta, but throughout the State of Georgia. Black residents of the City of Atlanta should demand that the city enters the 21st century and prepare a climate action or adaptation plan that takes into account the difficulties faced by black and lower-income communities. Atlanta must develop more effective and efficient ways to engage communities that will feel the impact of climate change the most. But these communities must be proactive in shaping these solutions and holding officials accountable.