With deep roots in systemic racism and inequality, climate change is a public health crisis that exacerbates existing health inequities. Climate disruption disproportionately affects communities of color, children, older populations, low-income communities, pregnant people, immigrant groups, Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, workers who are exposed to extreme weather, and people with pre-existing or chronic medical conditions. The many systems of oppression that disproportionately harm marginalized groups are inextricably interlinked; white supremacy culture and structural racism manifest through climate-related impacts on Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), increasing CO2 levels, rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and increases in extreme weather result in multiple public health impacts, including increases in respiratory diseases, asthma, allergies, vector-borne diseases, heat-related illness and death, and mental health challenges.
As temperatures increase, for example, increased heat wave intensity and frequency, increased humidity, degraded air quality, and reduced water quality lead to increases in cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, and other chronic conditions, in addition to heat-related illness such as heat stroke. Warmer temperatures contribute to increased ground-level ozone or smog, which increases the risk of respiratory issues for people with asthma, children, older adults, and outdoor workers.
Warmer temperatures and fewer hard freezes lengthen the transmission season for vector-borne diseases such as Lyme disease and West Nile Virus. Increased temperatures prolong growing seasons, which can cause longer, more intense allergy seasons and asthma symptoms.
In the United States, communities affected by racist housing policies such as redlining experience disproportionate climate impacts. Historically redlined communities now suffer more extreme heat (5–12 degrees hotter), more intense air pollution (up to 50 percent worse), higher poverty, and significant health disparities. These communities are also occupied by the primary drivers of climate change—major polluters such as chemical plants, diesel truck yards, Superfund sites, highway innerbelts, etc. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Black and African American individuals are 40 percent more likely to “currently live in areas with the highest projected increases in extreme temperature related deaths.” Black children are twice as likely to be hospitalized and four time as likely to die from asthma as white children. Native Americans and Alaska Natives are 48 percent more likely to live in areas where the “highest percentage of land is projected to be inundated due to sea level rise.” A 2016 Natural Resources Defense Council report found that Latinos are three times more likely to die on the job from heat-related causes. All of these communities experience the harshest impacts of climate change in climate disasters, climate-related health impacts, and daily exposure to the pollution that drives climate change.
Redlined communities or “sacrifice zones”—where marginalized groups live near chemical plants or other dangerous industries—also bear the highest energy burdens in the country. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), low-income communities spend three times more of their income on energy costs; the median “energy burden” is 43 percent higher for Black households and 20 percent higher for Hispanic households than for non-Hispanic white households.
Reducing energy usage reduces greenhouse gas emissions, so energy efficiency can reduce the emissions that cause climate change while saving money, improving indoor air quality, and cultivating healthier communities. Unfortunately, low-income communities do not have equal access to energy efficiency. Weatherization can reduce energy burdens by 25 percent, but energy efficiency programs can be inaccessible to lower-income families–often by design.
Systemic racism in housing, investment, and discriminatory lending practices has limited access to healthy and energy-efficient housing for BIPOC communities. Improving energy efficiency via weatherization and energy-saving devices would save money, improve indoor air quality, and reduce the emissions that cause climate change. Weatherization alone could reduce energy burdens by 25 percent, but, according to the ACEEE, BIPOC and lower-income communities have less access to energy efficiency programs. Utility programs, including appliance buy-backs, are not tailored to renters. Participant need often far exceeds available resources. Even small energy efficiency upgrades such as high-efficiency lightbulbs can be more expensive and less available in high-poverty areas. So, while low-income and BIPOC communities consume less energy they spend more—up to three times more—on energy costs.
How can UUs respond? Sometimes the best thing to do is slow down and reflect before jumping into an action without centering those most impacted. Examine your community. How has systemic oppression been locked in for people of color? Was yours a sundown town or county? Which neighborhoods were redlined? What treaties were violated when your community was established? Whose land are you on? How have immigrant communities been treated?
Go as far back as you can, then scan up to modern times. Consider: in the event of a climate disaster, which of your neighbors might lose their homes? When the grid fails, who is at risk of the deadly combination of power outages and extreme heat? This kind of thoughtful reflection will further your understanding of systemic racism in your community, and it can also help you identify a climate justice project and potential partners for collaboration. When disaster strikes, who are the frontline organizations that are the first on the scene? What community leaders are doing the work in the neighborhoods most impacted by climate, the neighborhoods with the most health challenges? Ask them how you can help. Listen. Do what they ask. Follow their lead. Embrace an attitude of curiosity and humility as you approach this transformative work.
Systemic racism is a primary driver of climate injustice and health inequity. Once we understand the impacts, it's clear that we have a moral obligation to center solutions on those most impacted. Otherwise, we are complicit in furthering injustice.