Climate Change: Who’s Hit the Hardest?

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A few weeks ago, I sat in a fellows meeting with a national environmental organization I am a part of, discussing climate change and its effects. Another member stood up and told a heavy story. While growing up in one of the most heavily polluted communities in southern California, both of his brothers had asthma. It hindered their abilities to participate in sports and daily life. Too often, he and his family had to wake up in the middle of the night to take someone having an asthma attack to the hospital.

Sadly, stories such as these are anything but unusual. The Climate Stories Project is one undertaking that gives a voice to those all over the world with climate change stories to tell. Climate change is so much more than just a collection of facts and statistics; it is felt on a deeper, more personal level by a steadily growing number of us.

We all know that climate change is a real and formidable threat to Earth and its inhabitants. In 2014, the Obama Administration’s Third U.S. National Climate Assessment confirmed climate change’s impact on Americans in every region of the U.S. and key sectors of the national economy. Global climate change has already resulted in irreversible damage to the environment: glaciers have shrunk; sea levels have risen; we are experiencing longer, more intense heat waves; etc. These changes have major consequences for our economy, infrastructure, and well-being, not to mention Earth’s other inhabitants and ecosystems.

yellow change ahead road sign and copyspace for text message

However, climate change does not affect everyone equally. Specifically, minority and low-income communities are and will be hit the hardest by climate change. These communities are more vulnerable because they bear the burden of poor air quality; proximity to factories, plants, and other polluting facilities; excess pollution; etc. Due to this low environmental healthiness, low-income communities are particularly susceptible to heat waves and extreme weather and climate events – take Hurricane Katrina, for example. This disparity in climate change’s effects on different communities is sometimes referred to as the “climate gap.”

Fortunately, people and policymakers are noticing this climate gap and working to pass legislation to mitigate it. For example, California recently passed the bill SB 350, which places a greater focus on clean energy in disadvantaged and minority communities, as these are most affected by pollution from the energy sector. In addition, in 2012, California passed the legislation SB 535, which reduces pollutants through a cap-and-trade system. This Senate Bill requires that 25% of the fund from SB 535 is spent on projects that benefit disadvantaged communities, with at least 10% of that 25% spent on projects located in disadvantaged communities. You can see a map of California, color-coded to reflect communities’ levels of environmental healthiness based on a list of set factors, on the CalEnviroScreen 2.0, which is used mainly for SB 535.

Map of California based on pollution “scores,” with the highest percentages being the least environmentally healthy
Map of California based on pollution “scores,” with the highest percentages being the least environmentally healthy.

Climate change is real, and it’s happening now, with consequences of varying degrees in different communities. It is important to recognize this reality and act in accordance.

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