Over the past few years, opposing factions within American society have battled and grappled with everything from Black Lives Matter, police reform, the Me Too Movement, voting rights and institutional racism. Obviously, these issues relate primarily to African-Americans in a continued struggle for equity and the full complement of civil rights.
But there’s another issue that’s not always a “front-burner” topic among African-Americans. While often overlooked on social media and in the daily interpersonal discourse, it merits immediate attention: Climate change is a calamity afflicting every continent, nation, locality and neighborhood. It’s more than mere theory or unsettled debate.
UN report offers sober assessment
Last week, a science report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the world has rapidly warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels. The planet is careening toward 1.5 degrees warmer, a number said to be a critical threshold that world leaders at one point agreed should remain below to avoid worsening impacts.
The report, unlike previous assessments, concluded that it is “unequivocal” that humans have caused the climate crisis and confirms that “widespread and rapid changes” have already occurred—some of them irreversibly.
Scientists who study weather and climate generally agree that humans have irreparably altered the climate as the world faces its greatest environmental threat that will not change in the years to come. Despite the myriad of fateful challenges that confront African-Americans, climate change has for years been a pressing life-and-death issue that has affected generations of the Black community.
Congressional Black Caucus weighs in
About 15 years ago, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBC) issued the report “African-Americans and Climate Change: An Unequal Burden” that put a spotlight on hurricanes, “super storms,” environmental pollution and the many health maladies within the inner city resulting from left-over carcinogens from long-abandoned factories.
The majority of African-Americans reside in urban areas with a significant amount scattered throughout the South. The combination of global warming, heatwaves and the “urban island heat effect” has rendered many Blacks at risk of suffering long-term health problems specifically as asthma relates to air pollution and lead poisoning is rooted in tainted water supplies.
Business and faith leaders form alliance
Not long after the CBC report, the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative found that heat-related deaths among Blacks occur at a 150- to 200-percent greater rate than for non-Hispanic Whites. Cities, they found, tend to have more air pollution and smog—which leads to an array of upper-respiratory health concerns. A new entity, the Commission to Engage African-Americans on Climate Change, has endeavored to attract academia, business leaders, faith leaders, nonprofits and advocacy groups to work to better understand the impacts climate change will have on Black people. A primary goal is to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to ensure that America’s energy policies are fair to everyone.
Green For All, an Oakland-based group that brings together unions and environmental groups to determine the best practices for confronting climate change, commissioned a poll that revealed that African-Americans rate global warming and air pollution as “serious problems.” The Black community witnessed a 50-percent increase in child asthma between 2001 and 2010. By 2012, African-Americans were reportedly 20-percent more likely to have asthma than non-Hispanic Whites. Worse yet, the American Lung Association reports that African-Americans are three times more likely to die from asthma-related causes than the White population.
Communities of color hit hardest
It’s a similar story in a 2017 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center. When asked about the priority of climate policy, Black and Hispanic adults were more likely than White adults to say their own communities were experiencing environmental problems. This finding aligns with reports of disproportionate environmental hazards in large Black communities where 41 percent of respondents said the amount of garbage, waste and landfills in their community is a “big problem.” Air and water pollution along with drinking water safety were among the highest concerns of Black poll participants.
Catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina hit socially vulnerable groups especially hard, such as the elderly, those of lower income, racial minorities and women. These populations are more likely than other income groups to perceive greater risks from natural disasters; to suffer disproportionately from the physical and psychological impacts of disasters; experience injuries or higher mortality rates, and find it more difficult to recover after disaster strikes.
Scorching heat waves will continue
In Southern California, bigger and increasingly ferocious wildfires permeate the Los Angeles Basin with poisonous particles stretching from the sunny shores of Malibu to the mean streets of Watts on an alarmingly frequent basis.
The U.N. report said the heatwave that killed hundreds this summer in the U.S. Northwest and British Columbia would have been “virtually impossible” without the climate crisis. Continued global warming, it was determined, made Hurricane Harvey’s devastating rainfall roughly three times more likely to occur and 15-percent more intense. Harvey was said to have dumped more than 19 trillion gallons of water on Texas and Louisiana in 2017, triggering devastating floods in the Houston area.
Black people in the Western Hemisphere are not strangers to environmental justice issues like “brownfields” (land with environmental problems that may leave it vacant or underused), or calamitous weather events that regularly wreak havoc on the Caribbean and southern United States.
“Forty-five percent of African-Americans live in the Southern United States,” said Dr. Robert Bullard, formerly the Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. Within academia, Bullard is popularly known as the “father of environmental justice.” He said the evidence of climate change is “overwhelming and staggering.”
Increased flooding in the Southern U.S.
“We can’t look the other way anymore,” Bullard said. “Climate change is no longer a theory but an actuality. The South is prone to more climate-related disasters in both scale and magnitude by a ratio of almost 4-1.” Also, according to Bullard, patterns of development have pushed many Black families into geographical areas which are more vulnerable to rising sea levels and subsequent flooding.
In the era of climate change, cities are expected to warm faster with greater density than rural areas. The high temperatures increase the risk of respiratory problems, heat-related stress and other illnesses. A 2014 report from the Center for American Progress found that 72 percent of African-Americans reside in counties that violate federal air pollution standards. This is in comparison to 58 percent of White persons.
The U.S. Forest Service (UFS) has also conducted studies on climate change and its harmful effects on African-Americans. Officials there determined that Black persons—and low-income persons in general—are more socially vulnerable to the frequency of so-called “super storms” that are directly related to global warming.
Black suffer more distress, injuries, death
“African-Americans suffer more distress, increased injuries, death and lasting effects like the loss of jobs and infrastructure,” said Dr. Cassandra Johnson, a social scientist with the UFS. “In the South, low-income African-Americans and Hispanics work directly or indirectly in the agricultural industry, which is particularly sensitive to extreme weather, especially droughts.”
Johnson explained that, on a global basis, droughts that may have occurred only once every 10 years or so now happen 70-percent more frequently. The climate change connection is particularly strong in the Western United States, which is experiencing an historic, multiyear drought that has drained reservoirs and triggered water shortages. The unrelenting drought and record heat means wildfire seasons are now longer and result in more destructive fires. CalFire has reported that six of the top 10 largest fires in California have occurred in 2020 or 2021.
Increase in socioeconomic inequality
Climate change exacerbates existing socioeconomic inequalities. Research conducted by the Center for Climate Change Communication found that African-Americans are more concerned than Whites about climate change because they are often more exposed and vulnerable to environmental hazards and extreme weather events. Blacks (and people of color in general) are more likely to be exposed to air pollution. The report suggested that inequitable exposure to environmental problems could explain why an increasing amount of African-Americans report greater intentions to engage in climate activism.
Of course, the Western Hemisphere is not the only world region suffering the effects of climate change. Increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, changing precipitation patterns and more extreme weather are threatening human health and safety, food and water security, and socio-economic development in Africa. The risks there are becoming more pronounced as climate trends and associated impacts are taking a heavy toll on the economy of many nations, particularly within sensitive sectors like agriculture.
Declining water resources in Africa
“Climate change is having a growing impact on the African continent,” said World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “Climate change is hitting the most vulnerable hardest, and is contributing to food insecurity, population displacement and stress on water resources.” Because of logistical challenges in many nations on the continent, much more accurate and current data, he suggested, will be needed for adaptation planning.
The latest decadal predictions by the WMO—covering the five-year period from 2020 to 2024—shows continued warming and decreasing rainfall especially over North and Southern Africa. Extensive areas of Africa will exceed 2 degrees Celsius (35.6 Fahrenheit) of warming above pre-industrial levels by the last two decades of this century. Much of Africa has already warmed by more than 1 degree Celsius (33.8 Fahrenheit) since 1901, with an increase in heatwaves and hot days. Reduction in precipitation will likely continue over North Africa, and also in the south-western parts of South Africa by the end of the century.
More Blacks favor ‘green jobs’
While African-Americans strongly back climate action, there is a two-fold reason for this support. Most African-Americans count on the shift to clean energy to also create new jobs. That’s six times the proportion of Blacks who believe “green energy” will result in job losses, according to Green For All and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC). The shift will also reduce their energy costs with the increased use of solar powers.
In practically every poll and survey conducted on the subject, a majority of African-Americans say that action should be taken to reduce the threat of global warming. Only three percent of Blacks, according to Green For All, say the concern about global warming is unwarranted.
The aforementioned findings demonstrate that communities of color care about climate change and want to be part of creating solutions to pollution. Climate change affects us all—and it hurts Black people first and worst. In reflecting the diversity of the nation, the climate movement may become stronger and better on equity and the environment.