By Dr. Robert D. Bullard
I have spent my career fighting to show how environmental impacts adversely impact marginalized communities. How it uniquely hurts those who are already vulnerable, who feel the invisible hand of systemic racism and structural oppression in a variety of ways, and how those issues can be seen in how they respond to extreme weather.
It’s been a long and lonely road for us to shift policy to account for these communities, and to hold major polluters accountable locally and nationally. Which is why I was so surprised to find that, apparently, I have a new ally in the most unexpected place: The Trump administration.
Because one of the very first things the 1,600 page National Climate Assessment Trump released on Black Friday says is something I’ve been saying for years. The very first section of the report’s introduction states that those “who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts.”
Given Trump’s statements on the assessment, his repetitive denial of climate science and years of using racism to achieve political success – it’s obvious that he doesn’t write or support the work done in the assessment. But such a clear acknowledgement of the issue from his administration is notable, and an encouraging word for communities like mine who’ve pointed to the realities woven throughout this report time and time again.
I’ve been talking about placing justice and equity at the center of our public policies for years, and I have had help. Yet after decades of working on climate and environmental issues, I’ve never seen such widespread concern among the scientific community. I’m hopeful, then, that this represents a major shift in how we think about responding to climate change. Because we need to make sure that we’re putting vulnerable communities front and center. And not just because that’s the morally right thing to do. It’s also wise.
Because, “prioritizing adaptation actions for the most vulnerable populations” the report says, “would contribute to a more equitable future within and across communities.” Protect those on the frontlines, who are least able to protect themselves, and the entire community benefits.
And we need to protect ourselves from climate change, because it’s already here and hurting us. As the report explains, climate change is making hurricanes like Harvey more destructive, as sea levels rise a storm surge has more water at its disposal to push inland, and warmer air and water give a hurricane more power.
When one of these storms strikes, the affluent have no problem taking time off work to prepare their families for an impromptu vacation, and either jump in their car or even catch a flight to spend some time at a hotel where it’s safe. Many households who live on the economic margins are left behind before and after disasters strike. Folks in low-income communities, meanwhile, have to stay and work as many days as possible, before finding their way (without a car) to a likely overcrowded shelter. (Assuming they’re welcome in the shelters, which are often churches. And while many people of faith welcome all comers, religious institutions traditionally haven’t been particularly welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community, to put it mildly.)
Then even once the storm has passed, the danger remains. Generally, disaster recovery dollars tend to provide greater benefits of affluent households where “money follows money, money follows power, and money follows whites.” A legacy of systemic racism and economic oppression have penned communities of color in dangerous real estate, because companies have long considered people of communities more viable locations for polluting factories than white neighborhoods where the outraged community pushback would have more resources at its disposal. It’s not an accident that 1 in 5 African-American residents lives within a half-mile of an oil or gas production, processing or storage facility.
And when storms, which the NCA says have already gotten stronger thanks to climate change, roll in, they are all too often flooding these toxic sites, spreading the dangerous contaminates through the water. When the waters finally recede, the toxins don’t, instead blanketing the community with a silent and invisible danger. The report notes that Harvey, for example, inundated 43 different Superfund sites, likely spreading toxic waste into the surrounding community. And since Superfund sites are disproportionately located in minority neighborhoods, we can say that Harvey’s toxic legacy will likely be felt more greatly by communities of color.
It’s cold comfort, admittedly, to finally see environmental justice so comprehensively woven into a report of this magnitude. Cold in that these problems are still so immense, but comfort in that even the white-hot hostility of the Trump administration to people of color didn’t seem to chill those who wrote this warning of how climate change and injustice is already hurting millions of people with the least the most.
Dr. Robert D. Bullard is the Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.