How Structural Racism and Inequality Drive the Climate Gap. Structural Drivers of Climate Change and Health Inequities

USA - The Climate Gap and the Color Line — Racial Health Inequities and Climate Change

Driven primarily by fossil-fuel use and associated carbon emissions, climate change poses an existential threat to planetary life by transforming physical and social environments through rising sea levels, drought, heat waves, more intense hurricanes and flooding, and disruptions to energy and food production.

Current and projected health, environmental, and socioeconomic effects of climate change are well-documented and central to environmental justice because of their disparate effects on marginalized populations. Debates about disparities in the effects of climate change have traditionally focused on their global dimensions — in particular, how formerly colonized countries that are least responsible for greenhouse-gas emissions are the most threatened by the multiple risks of global warming and lack the resources to resist the forces of climate change and survive.2

The Climate Gap

Within the United States, climate change and fossil fuel–generated air pollution have disproportionately harmed people of color and low-income communities, which is also true of some strategies to mitigate climate change.3 These inequitable effects on racially marginalized groups have been described as the “climate gap”4 and have led to mounting calls for policymakers to address the “syndemic” (or synergistic epidemic in which multiple factors create or worsen a health crisis) of climate change, economic injustice, and the enduring legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and resulting forms of structural racism that largely segregates society — what sociologist W.E.B. DuBois described in the early 20th century as “the color line.” It is critical to protect communities that are most vulnerable to rapidly changing climate conditions and have the fewest resources to prepare for and recover from extreme weather events and other climate-related hazards (i.e., communities of color, Indigenous peoples, and low-income communities). Vulnerability to climate change is determined according to the ability of communities and households to anticipate, avoid, mitigate, and recover from the direct and indirect effects of climate change, including extreme weather events, geophysical shifts, and infectious diseases. Collectively, these scenarios indicate that climate change will amplify existing health, social, and economic inequalities while creating new ones.

Greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change are driven in part by systemic inequalities, including large disparities in wealth and political power, as well as racial and ethnic segregation (Figure 1).5,6 To be effective, climate-change mitigation and adaptation strategies must address these structural factors. Research has shown that societies with social and economic inequities may be more likely to pollute or otherwise degrade their environments.6 The economic benefits that result from polluting activities are accrued more by wealthy persons, both as producers (e.g., shareholders of polluting industries) and consumers (since consumption increases with wealth), than by low-income persons. Wealthy persons avoid the harmful effects of pollution by, for example, moving away from industrial areas or wielding political influence to keep polluting activities away from their neighborhoods. This physical separation between privileged and disadvantaged communities can solidify and amplify patterns of racial residential segregation that have been associated with higher levels of traffic-related air pollution that also disproportionately affect communities of color.7,8

Legacies of structural racism have resulted in “sacrifice zones” where the inequitable distribution of pollution sources,9 including major roadways, rail lines, ports, and industrial facilities, have led to disproportionate air pollution exposures borne by communities of color and low-income communities.10 For example, the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, in trying to revive the housing market in the 1930s in the wake of the Great Depression, conducted “redlining” by grading and mapping neighborhoods in cities across the United States according to perceptions of risk in real-estate investment.11 These risk criteria were often racist, in which neighborhoods composed of largely low-income, immigrant, or Black residents were deemed to be “hazardous” or “definitely declining” and mapped in red (i.e., redlined), whereas wealthier communities with more White residents were considered to be the “best” or “still desirable.” Historians have shown that these maps reflected racism perpetuated by government and private actors within urban real-estate markets beginning early in the 20th century.12 Discriminatory lending and systematic public disinvestment in formerly redlined neighborhoods, followed by discriminatory Federal Housing Authority policies,13 have contributed to the destruction of many Black communities through their bifurcation by highway construction14 and urban renewal programs.15 Today, many of these neighborhoods have worse air quality,8 minimal green space, and higher risks of heat-island effects,16 as well as elevated rates of cardiovascular disease,17 hospitalizations for asthma,18 poor birth outcomes,19 and other diseases,20 thereby increasing vulnerability to the adverse health effects associated with climate change.

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