This year marked 14 consecutive months of the hottest global temperatures on record, as Newsweek reports. The Arctic sea ice is melting and the Great Barrier Reef is turning a deathly pale white as the pH and temperature of the oceans change. Unmitigated carbon and inorganic plastic pollution has led to failing harvests, food insecurity, droughts, floods, and record-breaking and devastating weather disasters.
But, those responsible for these problems remain largely unaffected.
Centuries of systematic oppression have created an environmental vacuum on earth that blights Black, Brown, Indigenous and lower-wealth communities with pollution and dwindling resources. From a local point of view, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, it’s called redlining, exclusionary covenants and unfair zoning practices. From a global standpoint this is nothing more than economic and environmental apartheid.
According to the American Lung Association, approximately 74 million people of color, or 57%, live in counties with at least one failing grade for ozone and/or particle pollution, compared with 38% of whites.
Widespread discrimination and government neglect has kept this issue out of the spotlight. Meanwhile, the danger to minority communities in the U.S. is already present and getting worse. Minority populations are more likely to live near toxic facilities, and breathe in more polluted air than White communities across the US, according to the NAACP’s 2012 “Coal-Blooded” study. U.S. minorities are further 38% more likely to be exposed to the asthma-causing pollutant nitrogen oxide from climate-warming cars, construction equipment, and industrial sources like coal plants, despite the fact that they make up only 13% of the population.
Heat waves are expected to come more often, and with greater strength, as the climate crisis worsens. But the heat may be disproportionately centered around vulnerable communities. In Portland, rising temperatures have concentrated in “heat islands” around areas when’re racist housing policies have also relegated low-income communities and people of color for decades.
A study from Portland State University found a difference of as much as 13 degrees between poor and affluent areas of the city.
Heat waves are now claiming more lives each year than natural disasters. People’s bodies simply stop working, most often at night, when they are unable to regulate temperatures during REM sleep.
So, what’s the solution?
“The patterns of the lowest temperatures in specific neighborhoods of a city do not occur because of circumstance or coincidence,” said Vivek Shandas, urban studies and planning professor at PSU and co-author of the study. “They are a result of decades of intentional investment in parks, green spaces, trees, transportation and housing policies that provided ‘cooling services,’ which also coincide with being wealthier and whiter across the country.”
According to the Sierra Club, cooling down urban heat islands not easy. Some cities have tried opening up cooling centers in places with public access like churches or municipal buildings, but they may also require identification or personal information that not everyone is comfortable with. And, in the case where air conditioners are being used, the solution actually contributes to the greater problem.
Planting trees in hot areas can provide some relief, but combating the deadly combination of climate change and heat islands requires buy-in from developers and municipal management as well as environmentally-conscious community leaders.
Groundwork USA’s Climate Safe Neighborhoods partnership has a process for engaging communities in cooling down, according to the Sierra Club. There is an educational component; residents are taught about the insidious nature of environmental racism, and the fact that these problems are not accidental.
“Local youth in Richmond, Virginia, go door-to-door with city maps printed on transparent paper: a redlining map, a heat map, a tree canopy map, and an impervious pavement map. They invite residents to overlay the transparencies,” Sierra Club reports.
Following that, Groundwork USA works with residents to identify the heat mitigation measures that could make the biggest impact in the community. And then they work to put those measure in place
“It’s brought together folks that have been really skeptical of elements of the environmental justice movement . . . with people who have been fighting for this their entire lives,” says Cate Mingoya, director of capacity building at Groundwork USA.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.