Closing America’s Climate Gap Between Rich and Poor

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The gap between rich and poor as a result of mitigating climate change could become overwhelming if policymakers aren’t careful to evaluate the steps needed to ensure both effectiveness and social justice, a new report from the University of Southern California warns.

The analysis by USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equality (PERE) essentially tries to identify the impact that climate change — and its remedies — will have on people at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.

Think of it as seeing trees in an attempt to define a forest.

The Climate Gap report focuses on human rights, public health and social justice from a climate change and climate change amelioration perspective, defining those areas most likely to impact the poor, beginning with extreme heat and ending with biofuel production.

PERE Director Manuel Pastor, a professor in USC’s Geography and American Studies and Ethnicity Department, defines it as a vital domestic component of climate legislation.

Urban Jungles Bake as Temperatures Rise

Pastor notes that heat waves in poorer, more urban California cities like Wilmington, West Oakland, east Palo Alto and central Los Angeles have been shown to seriously affect the health of the poor, who can’t always afford the costs of air-conditioning or the units themselves.

“In addition, lower income communities, or communities of color, tend to have more impervious surfaces (like concrete and asphalt) and less tree canopy, making them even more vulnerable to the risks of higher temperatures, which are expected to increase with climate change,” he said.

Pastor is speaking of the “asphalt jungles” that haunt major American cities; places where the poor find affordable housing but few amenities such as parks, tree-lined sidewalks or even fully funded social service agencies and safe schools.

In these urban jungles, the “heat island” effects double and sometimes triple, and deaths run three times higher than elsewhere, especially among the old, the very young and African Americans.

In Los Angeles, studies show that African Americans are nearly twice as likely to die during heat events as more exposed construction and agricultural workers — a phenomenal statistic that experts say is likely to rise as the globe warms. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that heat events also produce record levels of air pollution, and people are advised to stay indoors, which may be the worst thing to do when temperatures soar and homes have no air conditioning.

“There are already clear disparities with regard to pollution, and to the extent that climate change worsens impacts of pollution or the greenhouse gases associated with it, as regard to air quality, we can only expect these disparities to rise,” Pastor said.

Overwhelming evidence shows that air pollution in poorer areas is largely due to the siting of highways, power plants and industrial facilities within such communities rather than in more affluent ones — a NIMBY factor that throws social justice to the winds but preserves the view for the few who can afford to live in better neighborhoods.

The situation gets worse during heat waves, which speed up chemical interactions between nitrogen oxide (from coal-burning power plants and vehicles), volatile organic gases (from automobiles), and sunlight. These chemical “stews” cause an increase in ground-level ozone, which exacerbates everything from asthma and emphysema to heart disease and immune system function.

Rising energy fees due to climate change and its mitigation costs will further disproportionately impact the poor. These costs always represent a higher proportion of the budget for the poor, and the cost of creating “cleaner” energy will likely intensify the disparity. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t pursue cleaner technologies or mitigation strategies for pollutive energy production, Pastor notes, but that the inevitable costs must be managed by policymakers with an eye to their impacts on the poor.

“Many people think if we address climate change we will drive up energy prices, but we’re going to be seeing energy prices go up as a result of climate change simply because, as the planet heats up and people try to cool themselves down, that will lead to more energy demand.

"Which means that we need to pay attention to whether or not (climate change) mitigation strategies really do target those who are most at risk.”

Agricultural Shifts Raise Food Prices

In addition to energy expenses, low-income families also spend a disproportionate amount of their earnings on food, a situation that can only worsen as climate change proceeds.

It is a direct result of both crop damage from climate change and curbing emissions at the source, plus stricter fuel standards that drive up the cost of transporting food.

Agriculture and meat production contribute heavily to climate change, causing, among other things, potable water shortages.

Biofuels have not helped the situation. Corn, which accounts for 90 percent of America’s biofuel feedstock, is also the carbohydrate staple of about 50 percent of American food production, from corn syrup to tortillas. Shifting fields from corn for food to corn for fuel has already affected food prices.

In addition, the biofuel refineries themselves exert an influence on adjacent communities in the form of chemical and microbial byproducts that increase health risks and raise ozone levels when the fuel is burned in vehicles. Since most biofuel refineries are located in poorer neighborhoods, the immediate impact is evident. As most poor communities are located along transportation thoroughfares, the secondary impact is inevitable.

In the future, PERE notes, alternative fuels will have to be weighed for their environmental impacts in order to prevent some truly terrible social injustices where food for the poor becomes “feel-good” fuel for the rich, as is the case with corn-based ethanol.

Closing the Climate Gap

Climate mitigation strategies aren’t just a case of cap-and-trade versus carbon fees.

“The debate has been very much snagged on which method versus what are our goals,” Pastor notes. “In fact, both face pretty much the same distributional challenges.

"For example, the cap part of the program is equal, but the trade part is not, or no one would trade. That is, the only reason a company trades is because it believes it will be cheaper for someone else to reduce emissions. This doesn’t make a bit of difference with greenhouse gases, but it makes a huge difference with the co-pollutants associated with those gases. This is also true of carbon fees, because you face the same situation whether you choose to reduce your emissions or pay your way out of them.”

Instead, PERE recommends closing the climate gap by:

    1. Auctioning permits or establishing a fee and investing revenue in communities that will be hardest hit.

    2. Coordinating reductions in greenhouse gas emissions with opportunities to reduce toxic pollutants in neighborhoods with the dirtiest air.

    3. Adopting policies that will lessen the climate-related health impacts faced by people of color and the poor.

    4. Developing policies that protect against climate-related economic disparities faced by people of color and the poor.

PERE hopes that, by measuring the success of mitigation strategies based on whether they protect everyone, as opposed to just the fortunate few, the dystopian future portrayed in Soylent Green can be avoided.

As Pastor says:

“We don’t have a choice, we’re either going to cook the planet or rescue it.

"I would say, to corporations like Wal-Mart, that, just as you have come to realize that the Earth is a sustainable resource that must be nourished and handed down from generation to generation, so are your workers. A system which wrings its efficiencies out of having trucks arrive on time and inventories refilled when needed is a welcome system, but a system which thrives on paying workers so poorly it makes it difficult to survive is not something that’s going to endure for the long haul.”

In the end, the greatest successes will come simply from closing the conversation gap, as policy makers, environmental organizations and environmental justice groups begin talking less past each other and more to each other to resolve the problems presented by climate change, Pastor says.

“I think some environmental organizations are so excited that people are finally paying attention to climate change, they haven’t wanted to deal with concerns raised by environmental justice organizations about disparities. That has to change.”


See also:

Life on an Urban Oil Field

Green Building Sweeps America, Except in Poor Areas

Poor Demand Binding Treaty in Copenhagen, as Rich Squash Hope


(Photo: diegocupolo / CC BY 2.0)