According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), the impacts of climate change will not be equally distributed across the U.S. population. Those who are already vulnerable due to a range of social, economic, historical, and political factors have a lower capacity to prepare for, cope with, and recover from climate change impacts. Understanding the comparative risks to vulnerable populations will be critical to developing effective and equitable strategies for responding to climate change.
In this first of a series, we explore the impacts of Hurricane Ida on Brown and Black communities, who continue to suffer disproportionate and unequal risks from climate change.
On August 29, Hurricane Ida struck the U.S.–a Category 4 storm that ripped into the Louisiana coastline with deadly force, making landfall near the city of Port Fourchon. It was 16 years to the day that Hurricane Katrina struck the City of New Orleans.
The system, which registered sustained winds of 150 mph, moved through the state with deadly force, then continued through the Appalachians and the Northeastern swath of the U.S., unleashing torrential rains, widespread flooding, tropical storm-force winds, and tornadoes up and down the Eastern Seaboard, before finally moving out into the Atlantic.
Ida left devastation in its wake, destroying countless homes and businesses, and knocking out power to well over a million people.
The storm–the worst to hit Louisiana since Katrina in 2005– is estimated to have caused at least $50 billion in damages in the U.S. and nearly 100 deaths, many in New York and New Jersey, where the impacts were unexpectedly deadly.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), warming from greenhouse gases will likely cause hurricanes in the coming century to become more intense globally and have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes.
The impacts of these hurricanes will be experienced most by communities of color and low-income communities, who have historically suffered high poverty rates, environmental burdens like air and water pollution, crumbling infrastructure, and a lack of resources.
An analysis by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)–released on the same day that Ida pummeled the Northeast–shows that the most severe effects from climate change fall disproportionately on underserved communities, who are least able to prepare for, and recover from, heat waves, poor air quality, flooding, and other weather-related impacts.
The report reveals the degree to which four socially vulnerable populations— defined based on income, education, race and ethnicity, and age—may be more exposed to the highest impacts of climate change. The analysis quantifies six types of impacts, including those to health from changes in air quality and extreme temperature, disruptions to weather-exposed workers, and flooding threats to property.
Black individuals face higher impacts of climate change for all six impacts analyzed in the report, compared to all other demographic groups. For example, with 2°C of global warming, Black individuals are 34 percent more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma diagnoses. This same community is also 40 percent more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in extreme temperature-related deaths.
Hispanics and Latino individuals, who have high participation in weather-exposed industries such as construction and agriculture, are especially vulnerable to the effects of extreme temperatures. With 2°C of global warming, Hispanic and Latino individuals are 43 percent more likely to live in areas with the highest projected reductions in labor hours due to extreme temperatures.
How did we get here?
Spurred by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Environmental Justice Movement came about in the 1970s with the growing awareness and acknowledgement of racist environmental policies, which were implemented and enforced over the course of our nation’s history. These policies continue to play out in a number of ways, including discriminatory enforcement of regulations and laws, deliberate targeting of minority communities as hazardous waste dumping sites, official sanctioning of dangerous pollutants in minority communities, and the exclusion of people of color from environmental leadership positions.
Gentrification and displacement have served to intensify poverty conditions and inhibit economic mobility of individuals, also playing a significant role in driving environmental racism. Residents who are dispersed from other members of their community have less political power as voting blocs are diluted and communities become less organized, inhibiting their ability to advocate for needed changes.
In addition, minority communities often do not have the financial resources or political representation to oppose hazardous waste sites. Controversial projects have historically been far less likely to be sited in non-minority communities, who often have the resources to pursue collective action to oppose the siting of these projects in their neighborhoods.
A report released by the PEAK Coalition–a group made up of New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, THE POINT CDC, UPROSE, and Clean Energy Group (CEG)–reveals that in New York City, there are 750,000 people living within one mile from a fossil-fueled peaker plant, with 78 percent of these either low-income individuals or people of color.
The removal of these polluting power plants has become a linchpin in the fight against climate change, with several major cities now exploring strategies to shutter these plants and replace them with local distributed clean energy.
New York City serves as a prime example of this movement, laying out a strategy to retire and replace its entire fossil-fuel peaker power fleet. The plan calls for the replacement of about half of the city’s existing fleet of polluting peaker plants with a combination of offshore wind, distributed solar, energy efficiency, and battery storage by 2025. The remaining peaker plants could be reliably and cost-effectively replaced with the same mix of resources by 2030.
This decentralized approach creates a more resilient power system than the current grid, which depends on centralized fossil-fuel power plants, thus enabling under-resourced communities to fare better during and after a catastrophic weather event like Hurricane Ida.
On the ground
Southern Solidarity, a grassroots volunteer organization headquartered in New Orleans, organizes the delivery of food, medical resources, and basic needs directly to unhoused individuals in the area. Mobilized by Black queer women, several among the group are from marginalized communities themselves.
Just hours after Hurricane Ida struck the area, Southern Solidarity volunteers took to their bikes and made their way through the streets of New Orleans, handing out meals and cash to people to pay for supplies or hotel rooms where many had taken shelter.
Jasmine Araujo founded Southern Solidarity two years ago and has since built a team in New York City, where she currently resides.
“In New York, there was no government assistance or plan to help unhoused people, people who sleep on the street, reach safety, which is concerning considering we are likely to get storms even worse than Ida during the coming years,” she said. “There’s no plan to give people rides to shelters, there is no plan to help move people from the street to safer affordable permanent housing, which is what we are fighting for.”
Araujo said it is common for unhoused people to take shelter at train stations or the post office steps.
“If they’re near Penn Station they go there, but a lot of folks said that these storms are usually very scary, especially when they’re right outside while it happens,” she said. “In New Orleans, we’re seeing a lot of new unhoused people because of the storm. A lot of folks lost their tents, so we’ve been working on making sure that every unhoused person that asks us for a tent gets one so that they have shelter. There’s a big mix of unhoused people, but of course there’s an over-representation of folks from Latinx or Black or migrants coming from Mexico and other places.”
Araujo says the group has seen major devastation across Indigenous communities, with many of these individuals losing their homes to Hurricane Ida and who now have no place to go.
“In New Orleans, many Indigenous people are now in shelters or sleeping on cots in schools instead of their homes because their homes have been destroyed,” she said. “Folks from Indigenous and Black communities are suffering more from Ida in Louisiana. There is no attention being paid by officials or politicians on the safety of unhoused folks or in underserved communities during ecological collapse. There is no work being done by officials on how things could be better, on how they’re going to create a plan in the event of ecological collapse.”
Stay tuned for the next installment in the series!
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