Facing an Unpredictable Future: Climate Resiliency and Environmental Justice
November 20, 2014
Even with our advanced science, what we don’t know about the future impacts of global warming far exceeds what we do know. How, and to what extent, climate change will affect specific communities is extremely difficult to predict. Perhaps the most significant concern from an environmental justice perspective is that the environmental risks attributable to climate change do not occur in isolation of other social, economic, and environmental inequalities. In part because of acknowledgement of the uncertainties and complexities in the state of knowledge about global warming impacts, a new planning framework has emerged that is based on the concept of resiliency. Basically, efforts to build climate resiliency are geared to support the capacity of communities to prepare for, and protect against, impacts associated with climate-related events. Just as importantly, resiliency is about building the capacity to ”bounce back” or recover after a destructive climate-related event has occurred.
The problem of course is that the inequality that exists among communities has fundamental implications for climate change, public health and resiliency. Building climate resiliency in environmental justice communities cannot happen without an understanding of the history and context of how inequality came to exist. From the destruction of socially and economically cohesive neighborhoods of color by the construction of the nation’s highway systems, to the concentration of disparities in the siting of high pollution-emitting industries, to the practice of redlining which withheld vital capital resources, private and public decisions have reproduced and reinforced a pattern of segregation and inequality. The result is that race and income are determinant factors in how environmental risks and hazards are distributed across communities. Today, approximately 40% to 45% of Black, Latino, and Native peoples live in stressed neighborhoods with high levels of environmental pollution and degradation. Public health must now contend with the environmental and environmental justice impacts of this historical inequality, while simultaneously addressing the environmental risks of a changing climate future.
We highlight just two examples to illustrate how climate change, unless explicitly and intentionally addressed, will potentially exacerbate existing environmental injustice.
Air Quality and Urban Heat Islands
It is estimated that climate change-induced increases in particulate matter and ozone concentrations will cause over 4,000 additional premature deaths per year. Because communities of color and low-income communities are already disproportionately exposed to airborne pollutants, the prospect of increased levels of air pollution due to climate change is especially problematic for these communities. Moreover, with climate change we have seen greater accumulations of heat in densely urban areas, creating “heat islands” where temperatures are significantly higher than in surrounding suburban and rural areas. The disproportionate impacts of urban heat islands on poor urban dwellers mean that the cumulative impacts of climate change are significantly more than the sum of the individual effects. This is one reason why environmental justice advocates and researchers maintain that any climate change program should also intentionally address co-pollutants, such as particulate matter, as well as greenhouse gases. By doing so, climate change would not be treated in isolation from other environmental pollution, but rather incorporated into the range of cumulative impacts that reflects the reality of community life and experience. Without addressing the pre-existing conditions of air pollution exposures, poor health, and other risk factors, greenhouse gas reduction and community health strategies will only reinforce existing inequality.
Historical Trauma and Displacement
Environmental justice communities must also contend with the cumulative impacts of historical events that have influenced today’s resiliency capacities. Research from the Indigenous experience has concluded that negative multi-generational effects result in a condition called historical trauma. Historical trauma is defined as the “cumulative trauma over both the life span and across generations that results from massive cataclysmic events . . . “ Policies of forced removal, relocation, assimilation and internment were destructive to the social and economic fabric of Indigenous communities. A critical element is that collective trauma is an omnipresent, community-wide phenomenon, while individual trauma is a personal psychological phenomenon unrelated to a collective common experience.
It is precisely the collective, community experience that is at the heart of climate change. Melting of permafrost in the Arctic Circle, drought in the Midwest and Southwest, flooding along the Mississippi River, and early and severe snowstorms on the East Coast affect whole communities. Hurricane Katrina caused an estimated 1,833 deaths and displaced more than one million people. On October 12, 2012 Hurricane Sandy hit the northeastern seaboard of the United States, and the Greater Antilles, Bahamas and eastern Canada. Reminiscent of Katrina, the effects of Hurricane Sandy unleashed a range of widely felt environmental impacts, from trauma and injury to toxic exposure to the physical displacement of residents.
A leader in challenging yet another displacement of Indigenous peoples, the Village of Kivalina in Alaska is a frontline community where erosion is requiring a complete relocation of the entire village. Global climate change is causing the Chukchi Sea to freeze less often when damaging winter storms occur, creating the conditions for significant erosion. The Army Corps of Engineers “assumed that as erosion approaches individual homes, homeowners will take steps to salvage their personal property.” But the Corps goes on, “with nowhere to move the structures, once the erosion reaches them, they will be a complete loss... the combined residential, commercial, and public buildings and infrastructure costs due to erosion at Kivalina total more than $105 million . . . although the community will become uninhabited long before complete loss occurs.” 
If public health is to be effective in addressing the impacts of climate change and in contributing to a more just and equal society, it must include the unequal starting point of environmental justice communities in the path to climate resiliency. While we cannot go into the many examples of environmental justice and climate change in the limited space here, highlighting these two examples can hopefully illustrate how climate resiliency health planning must address factors of inequality.
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