Does climate change disproportionately do harm to African-Americans?

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People come out of their homes to a flooded street after Hurricane Katrina hit the area with heavy wind and rain August 29, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Katrina was down graded to a category 4 storm as it approached New Orleans. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

People come out of their homes to a flooded street after Hurricane Katrina hit the area with heavy wind and rain August 29, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Katrina was down graded to a category 4 storm as it approached New Orleans. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The weather is big news in America. And according to many climate scientists extreme natural disasters will impact every facet of our lives in the coming years.

“The evidence is overwhelming and staggering,” says Dr. Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University. “We can’t look the other way anymore. Climate change is no longer a theory but an actuality.”

Still, as the United States grapples with the adverse effects of severe weather events an important conversation is coming to the forefront. Are there disparities between those affected by extreme weather-related disasters based on race and socioeconomic status?

Dr. Bullard, a pioneering scholar and activist against environmental racism, says the answer is a resounding yes. “Though African-Americans have a smaller carbon footprint they are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.”

The South is more susceptible

People of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by the effects of global warming socially, economically, geographically health-wise and through their capacity to fully recover, he says.

Indeed, African-Americans are concentrated in urban centers in the South, which is more susceptible to intense weather-related disasters like floods, hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes and tropical storms.

“Fifty-five percent of African-Americans live in the Southern United States.” says Bullard. “The South is prone to more climate-related disasters in both scale and magnitude by a ratio of almost 4:1.”

Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society and director of the Atmospheric Sciences program at the University of Georgia, says air pollution is a problem in communities of color, where substandard air can contribute to a multitude of health problems.

“In the era of climate change cities will warm faster with greater density than rural areas.” These high temperatures increase the risk of respiratory problems, heat-related stress and other illnesses.

“Blacks are 30 percent more likely to have asthma than whites,” says Shepherd.

Air pollution is the norm

Other studies also highlight the problem. More than 72 percent of African-Americans live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards, compared to 58 percent of white, according to a 2011 Center for American Progress report. A 2008 study by The Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative also found heat-related deaths among Blacks occur at a 150 to 200 percent greater rate than for non-Hispanic Whites.

Dr. Cassandra Johnson, a U.S. Forest Service social scientist, echoes this sentiment.

“African-Americans residing in central cities with large amounts of impervious surface areas are more vulnerable to heat-related manifestations of climate change resulting from urban heat islands,” says Johnson. ““Heat islands” concentrate solar energy and “waste heat” from sources like automobile exhaust to heat downtown areas in particular.”

Black Americans and lower income populations are also more socially vulnerable to adapting and adjusting to natural disasters, says Shepherd.

They suffer more distress, increased injuries and death and lasting effects like the loss of jobs and infrastructure. 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, says Shepherd.

A tendency to flood

Another major issue is that people of color live in coastal areas which are more prone to flooding. “Patterns of development have pushed certain populations in geographical areas which are more vulnerable,” says Bullard.

For Bullard the situation is exasperated by the inequalities that exist in the government emergency response and rescue in the immediate aftermath of major natural disasters. “Race and geographical location dictates who gets the resources first,” he adds.

For African-American communities there is a “slower response or sometimes there is no response” from local, state and federal government agencies. “People left to fend for themselves” without loans, grants or health insurance.

“After Katrina people realized that waiting for the government can be a hazard to your health. Communities, churches and voluntary groups were forced to come together to mobilize.” Though, he says the inept emergency response that followed Katrina is legacy of the history of discrimination that has occurred since the 1920s to the present day.

Even eight years after Hurricane Katrina, “if you look at Sandy the low-income and people of color have had to wait the longest,” says Bullard.

In his book The Wrong Complexion for Protection he documents that racial disparities exist in disaster response, the cleanup operation, rebuilding communities, reconstruction and recovery. “The response is oftentimes not done in a fair and equitable way.”

“It tells us that there has to be policy changes that are built into the process which deal with these issues that need to be enforced on the ground. We have to educate our community and get folks into the rooms where they implement policies.”

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti