By Monica Barnett
It's easy to dismiss environmental justice as just another niche concern, especially when the conversations are about polar bears, electric vehicles, rising sea levels and melting ice caps. But the truth is, climate change has far-reaching consequences that touch every corner of our society, albeit unequally. People in our most vulnerable communities often bear the brunt of these impacts. As a society, it's crucial that we recognize that while the issues may seem distant, their effects are closer to home than we might think. Recent events like the tropical storm Hillary, hurricane Idalia and the wildfires on drought-hit Maui provide relevant examples of this urgency.
Vulnerable communities, often comprise of people of color, immigrants and low income individuals and are the most affected by these environmental disruptions. They face a multitude of disadvantages including inadequate infrastructure, limited access to healthcare and financial fragility, all of which amplify their situation during times of environmental crisis.
In the days leading up to the arrival of tropical storm Hillary, grocery stores across southern California were filled with people stocking up on supplies and preparing to shelter in place. But in places like Coachella Valley, farmworkers prepared to lose days of work and the income that comes with it. Without any legal status as citizens, they didn’t qualify for most federal and state disaster aid. With very little access to essential resources, financial assistance and social services, migrant farmworkers and other communities like theirs are going to continue to grapple with the issues that are the results of damaging climate emergencies.
Many poorer communities are geographically situated near industrial sites or pollution sources. Consequently, they not only endure the direct impacts of climate events but also face the subsequent pollution and health risks arising from flooding and damage to these sites.
In August, hurricane Idalia hit one of Florida’s poorest areas – Big Bend. The low population and low property values in the Big Bend area meant that local governments had less financial resources to respond adequately. A recent report1 from United Way of the Big Bend found that a vast majority of the families in the region either live in poverty or right on the edge of it. Their infrastructure was likely unprepared for a storm the magnitude of Idalia and the effects will be long lasting.
As we all know, wildfires up and down the West Coast are becoming more intense every year, and the wildfire seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer. In California, some cities advise residents to stay indoors and avoid outdoor pollution exposure on the hottest days and when the air quality is bad. For many, this can often mean being stuck in a sweltering home without access to cool, clean air. Many communities in poorer neighborhoods are less likely to have access to air conditioning and the residents are also unlikely to have access to reliable transportation to get to a cooler part of the city or state and/or a government-sponsored cooling station. Without the financial resources, many communities can find themselves having to face the dangers of climate change head on, with little to no assistance.
Environmental justice is a pressing societal issue with ramifications that transcend geographic and racial boundaries. To build a more equitable and resilient society, we must acknowledge these disparities and work collectively to address them through inclusive policies, community empowerment, and targeted support. Only through such efforts can we hope to create a future where the impacts of climate change are justly distributed, and no one is left behind.
Menzel, Margie. "New ALICE Report Shows Big Bend above the State Average for Struggling Households." WFSU Public Media, 18 May 2023, news.wfsu.org/wfsu-local-news/2023-05-18/new-alice-report-shows-big-bend-above-the-state-average-for-struggling-households.