Why blacks may be biggest victims of climate change

Heat waves, sea level rise and droughts are among the threats climate change’s impacts pose around the globe.

But climate change also poses unique dangers to cities, and experts believe the disadvantaged, poor and elderly will bear the brunt of the crisis if it’s not abated.

“You can be in a high-risk population, and climate will put in additional pressure,” Shagun Mehrotra, managing director of Climate and Cities at Columbia University and NASA, Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told theGrio by phone this week from Mexico City.

Mehrotra, who advises officials from 40 cities in the U.S. and abroad on how to mitigate and adapt to climate change’s effects, will, later this month, address hundreds of mayors in the Mexican capital at the International Meeting of Mayors, a conference whose goal is to fight climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that climate change is very likely to trigger more heat waves, heavier rain and snowfall, droughts and powerful storms throughout the world. But with 70 percent of the world’s emissions coming from cities and more than half of the world’s population now living in urban areas, tackling climate change and adapting to its future effects will require city governments to take the lead, Mehotra said.

Click here to view a slideshow of the top 10 environmental issues affecting African-Americans

Urban climate change is a critical issue for African-Americans. The five states that have the highest African-American populations — New York, Florida, Georgia, Texas and California — are all home to sprawling metropolitan areas and are vulnerable to coastal climate-related stress. In addition, blacks have the highest poverty rate of any race in the U.S., with nearly 26 percent of African-Americans living in poverty, compared to 14 percent of the rest of the country, according to the U.S. Census.

Poorer residents are less capable of fleeing climate-stressed neighborhoods. And although Hurricane Katrina wasn’t climate change-related, some climate experts have likened the fallout from the 2005 storm as an example of what could happen to underprivileged city residents in the future.

“It’s illustrative of what could happen to a vulnerable population, given the potential for catastrophe,” Mehrotra said.

Climate change’s impact on the U.S.’s aging population is also a concern. This year, there were 3.3 million African-Americans over age 65, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging. That number is expected to triple by 2050. The elderly may not have the resources or wherewithal to protect themselves from a severe weather event. For example, in 2003, nearly 15,000 people — the majority of them elderly — died in France during a record-breaking heat wave, nearly all because they lacked air conditioners.

City officials should not only work toward lessening the impact of climate change, but must recognize their area’s susceptibility to climate change consequences — including vulnerable populations — and use the data in planning, according to Mehotra.

“As cities respond to climate change, it is crucial, not only to look at climate science and hazards, it is also critical for cities to reflect on their internal compositions,” he said.
The problems urban areas already face, like pollution, over-development, and inadequate infrastructure, could exacerbate climate change’s effects, like intense storms that were once only likely to strike every 50 or 100 years, the IPCC states.

Cities will continue to experience heat island effects, or higher temperatures in urban areas, that, when combined with air pollution, could trigger health problems.
In Phoenix, Ariz., the average number of hours that temperatures hovered above 100F has doubled over the past 50 years, in part due to the heat island effect, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Arizona leads the nation in deaths from heat.

“As we keep pushing the system so much harder and harder, we’re going to have larger stretches (of heat waves) that don’t relinquish themselves,” said Dr. Terry Root, a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University and biology professor. “That can affect humans, and plants and animals.”

The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s conservative estimates project that heat-related deaths in Chicago will more than double from 1975 to 2055. The city is located in Cook County, Ill, the county with the highest number of African-Americans — 1.35 million — of any in the country.

The Obama administration has long advocated for a comprehensive response to climate change. But a climate bill has stalled in Congress, and following the mid-term elections earlier this month, many believe it is unlikely to be revived. Some cities, like New York City, have enacted their own plans to combat climate change.

New York, home to the highest number of African-Americans of any U.S. state — 3.5 million — may be adversely affected by climate change impacts like sea level rise, storm-surges, floods and heat waves. New York City officials responded by creating a climate change task force and created plaNYC, a wide-reaching mitigation and adaptation plan. Mehrotra said more cities needed to follow New York City’s example.

Michele M. Betsill, a political science professor at Colorado State University, and author of the study, “Mitigating Climate Change in U.S. Cities: Opportunities and Obstacles,” said city officials should tackle climate change solutions that they control, like retrofitting city-owned buildings to make them more energy efficient or changing city vehicles to hybrids. She said several cities, including Portland, Ore. and Seattle, Wash., were working towards these goals.

The problem is that many city officials aren’t dealing with how their area will adapt to the impacts climate change is likely to have on their communities, Betsill said, adding that this type of planning was especially crucial for vulnerable residents.

“Places where you have people who are living on the edge, you want to see if you can find things that they do to reduce emissions today, but put them in a good situation to adapt tomorrow,” she said.

Mehrotra said that city officials must take a three-tier approach to handling climate change: use sound science to figure out the specific impacts climate change will have on their locale, identify the city’s most vulnerable populations and areas and determine how well the city could handle the effects.

“Cities can do a lot,” he said. “They don’t have to wait for nation-states. They don’t have to wait for climate negotiations to occur.”