I recently completed some research on the relationships between global commerce, agriculture and climate change, resulting in an interesting article that I was excited to share.
And then, the country was turned upside down by yet another act of violence against a Black man by a law enforcement officer. Particularly for people like myself; White, middle-class, empowered by a whole range of privileges (including that of a public voice thanks to the Pine Belt News), George Floyd’s death compels us to shine a light on racial injustices wherever we see them.
The impacts of climate change on minority communities are well understood and readily available to any curious reader, ranging from sea level rise and flooding to air pollution and health impacts. Historically, Black communities have been located in areas with lower land values. Perhaps they initially were set up near railroad tracks, rattled by passing freight cars and coated in layers of coal dust. To this day, communities adjacent to industrial zoning such as shipping yards or interstate highways are exposed to higher rates of air pollution, resulting in more cases of asthma and heart disease. Communities of color breathe air that is 40% than in White communities, primarily due to the asthma-causing Nitrogen Oxide produced from burning of fossil fuels.
Anything that weakens our immune system leaves us vulnerable to other diseases. A recent study at found that even the tiniest increases in long-term exposure to air pollution led to a 15% increase in mortality from COVID-19. Considering the proximity of many minority communities to fossil fuel plants, and the higher COVID-19 impacts in the Black community, this chronic pollution exposure is certainly contributing to a COVID death rate that is almost 3x higher than for Whites.
In addition to air pollution, another disadvantage in community structure is proximity to flood zones. Due to lower property values, minority populations can be disproportionally located in lower-lying areas, which are more flood-prone. Case in point may be Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where over 80% of homes lost were in African American neighborhoods such as New Orleans East.
As our planet warms and sea level rises, severe rainfall events will continue to become more frequent in our region. Warmer air is able to hold more water vapor, yielding more precipitation, and a higher sea level means less room for rain water to drain into. Inland waterways such as the Mississippi and Pearl Rivers are now getting backed up nearly every year. Particularly in urban areas such as Jackson, this flooding is more likely to occur in lower-valued land inhabited by Black communities.
One of the worst examples of urban flooding was 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. After making landfall as Category 4 hurricane, it gradually weakened to a tropical storm and then stalled over Houston for four days. A record-shattering 34 trillion gallons of water was then dropped on the area, destroying 40,000 homes and causing over $125 billion in damages. Not only were their communities covered in deeper flood waters for a longer time, but African Americans were not as well supported in recovery efforts. Applications for FEMA assistance for 34% of White Houstonians, but just 13% of Blacks. For some Black residents denied assistance, their letters contained the baffling that “the damage to your property was not caused by the disaster.”
Working towards climate action in Mississippi is hard. There is so much misinformation on social media; we have a lot of local employment in the fossil fuel industry; shifting towards renewable energy requires some up-front costs. But compared with centuries of systemic racism, manifested today by lack of access to safe housing, education or healthcare, or by criminal justice tragedies such as the murder of George Floyd, maybe our climate problem is not so hard to solve after all.
To all of us wishing to maintain a healthy planet for our coming generations, perhaps by becoming actively anti-racist, we also can achieve our environmental goals simultaneously.
Werle is a Lamar County resident and Mississippi State Coordinator for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Email him at: ChrisWerle@CCLvolunteer.org