Science, Tech & Environment

Climate change and America's poor

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(Image: Flickr user HB Art (cc: by-nc-sa))

The effects of climate change would likely hit hardest in places with the fewest resources to adapt. And we're not just talking about the developing world or tiny island nations.

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A new study from the University of California, Berkeley has found that low-income communities and people of color in the United States will suffer the most from the health and economic consequences of rising global temperatures.

On "Living on Earth, the study's co-author and environmental health scientist, Rachel Morello-Frosch talked with host Jeff Young.

Morello-Frosch explains how this climate gap works: "Well essentially the climate gap describes a hidden pattern that we have found that indicates that communities of color and poor households within the United States are gonna be suffering more from the economic and health consequences of climate change than other Americans. In other words the climate gap is not only an international question, which has been the focus of a lot of climate change debates over the years, it's also very much an acute domestic problem within the United States."

The study reports that in Los Angeles, a black Angelino is twice as likely to die during a heat wave compared to the rest of the city.

"Well there are a lot of reasons for that," said Morello-Frosch. "We've done some analysis in California that shows that communities of color and the poor live in neighborhoods that have less tree canopy which would protect them from heat and have a larger proportion of coverage of impervious surface, like concrete and pavement, which is gonna increase surface temperatures where they live. And they're less likely to own things like air conditioning that can help them cool off.

"The other issue is that African American communities, particularly low income African American communities, often have pre-existing health conditions that make them more vulnerable to heat waves such as high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic heart disease, asthma and these kinds of things. And extreme heat waves can be exacerbated."

In an area with pollution, warmer temperatures can cause respiratory problems, says Morello-Frosch, "Well one of the pollutants is very sensitive to hotter temperatures is ozone, which we know can cause respiratory problems and enhanced mortality risks. And so when the weather gets hotter the pollutants that are in the air, the volatile organic compounds that come from car emissions and industrial emissions mix with other chemicals to create ozone. And when it gets hot that chemical reaction increases and the levels of ozone are expected to go up as surface temperatures increase.

"... so air quality overall is gonna be worse for everyone, but the reality is that a lot of the sources of pollution are disproportionately located in low-income communities of color. And so the levels of pollutants, the localized hot spots as we call them, are gonna be even worse in those neighborhoods that are disproportionately hosting a lot of the major pollution sources, the large industrial facilities, the refineries, the power plants, the major transportation corridors and the highways. Those communities are expected to be even more acutely affected by degrading air quality as a result of climate change."

The leading climate change bill -- the Waxman-Markey Bill -- is currently in Congress. Opponents of the bill say it will increase energy costs, and those increased costs will fall disproportionately on the poor and people of color.

Morello-Frosch says that argument is problematic: "If we look at the issue of energy costs, for example, energy costs are gonna go up as a direct result of climate change itself if we do nothing and follow a business as usual scenario. Similarly climate change and water flow and droughts are gonna make it much more difficult for power plants to run efficiently.

"The increased costs of that energy production are inevitably going to get passed down to consumers. And those that are gonna be disproportionately impacted by those increased costs are low-income households that pay a higher proportion of their income for energy costs. So the do nothing scenario is gonna disproportionately impact the poor and is likely to be worse than any mitigation strategies that we move forward with to address climate change.

"... either way low-income consumers are gonna pay higher energy costs. But at least when we have a policy in place and a revenue stream generated, we have the resources to cushion the blow for low-income consumers."

Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth."