This weekend, major urban areas of the northeast United States experienced an epic blizzard. This follows months of challenging weather, which often left devastation in its wake. The past several years have many asking if we are seeing long-predicted results of climate change, partially caused by man-made (anthropogenic) greenhouse gas emissions. Superstorm Sandy devastated major urban centers in the Northeast, including New York City. The Midwest drought continues to stress food prices and barge traffic on the Mississippi River. The summer heatwave of 2012 brought temperatures in excess of 105-110 degrees Fahrenheit to an unprecedented area of the United States, including major urban centers like Chicago, St. Louis, and the I-95 urban corridor.
Several recent studies and statements by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the American Meteorological Society (AMS), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest that such seemingly biblical scale events are not necessarily random or attributable to weather variability alone. These groups point out that the natural weather and a backdrop of climate warming and change is now enhancing climate variability. Our climate is essentially on “steroids.”
Scientists who study weather and climate generally agree that humans are now altering the climate though some popular media outlets, blogs and political forums may give a different impression. Climate change is one of the greatest environmental challenges we face today and this will not change in the years to come. In 2004, the Congressional Black Congress Foundation (CBCF) issued a report entitled, “African Americans and Climate Change: An Unequal Burden” and more recent studies continue to sound this warning to the African American community. One can only look to Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans to get a glimpse of this reality.
But why is climate change affecting African Americans disproportionately? For a few reasons:
Where We Live: 2012 was possibly the warmest year in the U.S. record, according to NOAA. The majority of African Americans live in urban areas. The combination of climate warming, heatwaves, and the urban heat island effect (which causes temperatures in major cities to be warmer than suburban and rural areas) renders many Blacks at risk of suffering heat-related health issues. A 2008 study by The Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative found heat-related deaths among Blacks occur at a 150 to 200 percent greater rate than for non-Hispanic Whites. Cities also tend to have more air pollution and smog—-which leads to an array of health complications like asthma (which affects Blacks at a 36 percent higher rate of incidence than Whites) and other upper respiratory issues.
Social Vulnerability: A number of studies (such as this one) show that socially vulnerable groups such as the elderly, lower income, racial minorities, and women were more likely than other income groups to perceive greater risks from natural disasters but be less likely to respond to warnings about disasters; to suffer disproportionately from the physical and psychological impacts of disasters; experience injuries or higher mortality rates; and find it more difficult to recover after disasters. Water-borne disease, post-traumatic stress, loss of jobs or hours, and infrastructure damage also have lasting effects on the African-American community.
Job and Energy Disparities: Market forces responding to climate change (e.g., cap and trade policies, regulation) will drive supply, demand, and price for commodities and services that adversely affect traditionally lower-earning communities. In the South, lower income African-Americans and Hispanics are employed as wage laborers either directly or indirectly in the agricultural industry, which is particularly sensitive to weather and climate variability, especially drought. Energy policy and climate are also linked. African American households are particularly vulnerable to shifts in energy or fuel prices. The CBCF study also pointed out that African-Americans, per capita, have smaller carbon emissions than White populations, even though they are more significantly affected by anthropogenic climate change.
Darryl Matthews, Executive Director at the National Medical Association notes “it is clearly evident during these extreme weather events that our communities are extremely vulnerable due to the highly technological developments (power, ATMs, electronic transactions) on which we have come to depend.” Dr. Cassandra Johnson, U.S. Forest Service social scientist, further suggests that “community groups consider actions to help mitigate changing climate like creating more green space.”
African-Americans are not strangers to environmental justices issues like brownfields (land with environmental problems that may leave it vacant or underused), industrial pollution, and water pollution. However, like a many people of all races, climate change is often not perceived as an immediate threat or may even be viewed as unsettled or theory. Scientists understand what is at stake; now, our community must as well.
Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd is Professor at the University of Georgia (UGA) and Director of its Atmospheric Sciences Program. He is the President of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), only the 2nd African-American to hold this office. Follow him on Twitter: @DrShepherd2013