climate change race social justice

Race and the urban heat island effect

My new book, Climate Change is Racist, is mainly about the global injustices of climate change. But it includes more local perspectives, highlighting how people of colour are disproportionately vulnerable to both the damage of climate change, and the damage of the fossil fuel industry itself. These sorts of concerns are well known to the environmental justice movement in the US, though less prominent in the UK.

Another example of this environmental injustice is exposure to the heat island effect, the subject of a recent study in the journal Nature Communications. The researchers compared exposure to high urban summer temperatures and demographic information. They found that people of colour face higher heat intensity than white residents “in all but 6 of the 175 largest urbanized areas in the continental United States”.

It’s fairly well known that cities are often hotter than the surrounding countryside – all that asphalt and concrete baking in the sun. But how bad it gets depends on green space, trees and urban design. There is less of these in poorer parts of town, which leads to higher temperatures. That means that the burden of heat stress, including the risk of mortality during heatwaves, is worse in low income parts of town.

For a lot of people – including some critics of my book – this is where the analysis stops. Greater risk from heat, and from climate change, is to do with poverty and nothing more. The study pushes further than that and recognises that “widespread inequalities in heat exposure by race and ethnicity may not be well explained by differences in income alone.” They explain that racist policies have shaped urban development. Many US cities practiced ‘redlining’, either officially or through the collusion of mortgage lenders, excluding black families from certain parts of town. This segregation has left a long echo, and is a big part of the reason why people of colour live with higher urban temperatures today.

These are complex issues, explained well in this BBC article. There’s a lot more research to do, and this is of course specific to an American context and its particular history. But it is illustrative of how income differences are not enough to explain environmental injustices. There are recurring patterns of disadvantage that reinforce and compound each other, adding injustice on top of injustice.

As I describe in the book, race is only one of these recurring patterns. Women and children, the elderly, and those with disabilities also face higher risks from climate change. In some contexts, so do certain tribes or castes, indigenous people or those with a nomadic way of life. Climate change is a multiplier of any kind of marginalisation.

Compassionate and fair climate policies have to bear these patterns of disadvantage in mind, and prioritise those who are most vulnerable to the harm of climate change.

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