Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
As if 2020 didn’t feature enough human health threats already, it is becoming even more starkly obvious this year that climate-worsened disasters – wildfires in the West and a devastating hurricane season on the Gulf Coast – will continue to wreak havoc on a massive scale. Like most disasters, these climate catastrophes do not dole out harm equally. In virtually all cases, lower-income areas and communities of color are more vulnerable to the effects of wildfires, floods, and other climate disasters in the United States.
A 2018 study found that while predominantly white communities in Northern California, for example, are not necessarily less prone to wildfires than communities of color, they are far less vulnerable to harm due to these fires. Generations of overt and covert segregation and the persistent racial wealth gap have resulted in a situation in which affluent white communities have easy access to insurance, landscaping services, and reconstruction aid that marginalized communities lack. Native American reservations in the West are particularly vulnerable, as government-sanctioned land theft forced them onto dry, remote lands with little access to water and few services for rebuilding and fire prevention. (The study report is relatively brief and well-worth a read.)
Hurricanes are little different in their disparate impacts. Hurricane Laura is currently flooding a swath of Louisiana and surrounding states. Louisiana and East Texas are home to numerous industrial petrochemical facilities, which are often situated in close proximity to Black communities. When Hurricane Harvey devastated East Texas (from which it still hasn’t recovered) three years ago, refineries released massive quantities of toxic chemicals that harmed people nearby. While Laura seems to have spared these refineries for the most part, the very process to shut them down in advance of the hurricane results in pollution. As long as these refineries are active, this will be a perennial threat. As so often happens in the fossil fuel industries, profits are kept private, while costs are paid by people and their governments.
Minnesota may have smaller wildfires and floods, but climate impacts are still harmful and socially disparate in our state. Within Minneapolis, for example, heat waves can be more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter in traditionally Black neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods due to having more concrete and less tree cover. It’s a legacy of deliberate segregation via redlining that continues to cause harm today. Minnesotans of color also suffer higher rates of asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions that make people vulnerable to air pollution, wildfire smoke, and even dust and heat from increasingly powerful thunderstorms.
Solutions will save lives and money
Fossil fuels are among the most costly sources of energy and material on the planet. The purchase price of oil might be low, but only because the external costs of pollution and climate damage are not borne by oil companies, but passed on to all of us, especially low-income communities. Our historical choice to build a fossil fuel-addicted, climate-breaking economy that sacrifices the health of people of color and hits low-income communities hardest. Fortunately, as coal grows more expensive relative to wind and solar power and electric vehicle prices continue to be reduced, it becomes even harder to argue against progress.
Climate solutions can create a more equitable and healthy society for all. Vehicle electrification, such as Minnesota’s Clean Cars efforts, for example, will help reduce health problems from vehicle-emitted air pollution. Wind and solar energy and ecological restoration create new, sustainable jobs. Preventing new oil pipelines and sulfide mines from running through our wetlands will protect water sources for indigenous people and prevent future Minnesotans from being saddled with cleanup costs. Investing in public transit will create opportunities and make life easier for thousands of Minnesotans.
Pushing forward with any or all of these solutions is needed, but it’s not everything – we need to break free from both the unhealthy technology of the past and the social structures that reproduce inequality. As climate activists and environmentalists, we have a responsibility to work against all forms of racism, and that starts with engaging frontline communities every step of the way. It means that we can’t continue perpetuating top-down, white-dominated leadership structures that maliciously or intentionally exclude people of color. Organizations and advocates can’t afford to think ourselves so enlightened that we are somehow above criticism or immune from blindspots. We can’t repeat the mistakes of the 20th-century economy as we’re building a better one.