Disadvantaged communities are impacted first and worst
Before the virus entered our lives, the climate crisis already threatened millions of lives.
Now, because of the virus, it threatens millions more.
Despite the common misperception that climate change is a yet-to-be manifested future reality, we are all experiencing it. Now.
Climate changes impacts are felt by anyone inhaling the smoke of uncontrolled, atypical wildfires in the Arctic, Australia, Russia, Spain, or the Western United States; by anyone hungering for crab over the Winter holidays (the Dungeness crabbing seasons were postponed due to heightened levels of domoic acid, a marine toxin linked to algal blooms produced by warming oceans); and by anyone with increasingly expensive air-conditioning bills as average summer temperatures exceed former 100-year records.
Climate change produces positive feedback loops with anything but positive impacts: warming temperatures melt sea ice, less ice reflecting heat leads to even more ice melt, and the lack of secure ice-based ecosystems yields emaciated polar bears, walrus, and caribou, leading in turn to food insecurity for Inuit, Inupiaq, Yupik, and hundreds of other Native communities dependent on hunting for subsistence.
Climate change is not one single issue or threat. It’s the hill we’re all dying on, made steeper by each wrong step, each failure to move. It persists because it is the result of a system that benefits the powerful, and those in power have mostly proven desperate not to give up that system.
— Amy Westervelt
This is why younger activists are insisting on the term “climate crisis,” instead of the more benign phrase “climate change” used by scientists to refer to the suite of large-scale climatic anomalies: overall global warming of the earth’s surface, accompanied by oceanic warming, ocean acidification, glacier loss, sea level rise, and increased storm (and flood and drought and wildfire) intensity and frequency.
Native communities are among the the first to be displaced by wildfires, floods, and droughts; because they tend to live in remote areas and depend heavily on subsistence economies, their lifeways are the most deeply harmed by the loss of culturally significant species (salmon, wild rice), habitats (warming lakes and steams subjected to toxic algal blooms) and landscapes (fire-decimated Australian bushlands, glacier-dependent watersheds) due to climate change.
Native Americans […] are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because their tribes are tied to reservation land and rely on natural resources for subsistence and trade. Tribes are ill-equipped to adapt their reservations to increasing threats from storms, flooding, drought and wildfires because their communities are typically poor and because federal programs offer scant support.
— Valeria Volcovici
Traditional elders residing in the Arctic circle were the first to raise the alarm of extreme climate change impacts with scientists in the early 2000s. Yet indigenous peoples have highlighted climate change threats since the first world climate change conference held in 1979. Tribal environmental protection offices throughout the US are actively mitigating climate change impacts. Representatives of First Nations and tribal communities literally formed the front lines of the hundreds of thousands of protestors in the 2014 People’s Climate Change March and the 2019 Global Climate Strike March led by young people and held simultaneously in dozens of cities throughout the world.
I’m a high school freshman in Northern California who has grown up in a state of panic about my future. So I understand why all the adults around me are panicking about the coronavirus right now.
Just as climate change is a global phenomenon impacting everyone, but not everyone equally, as the coronavirus pandemic spreads from individual to household to neighborhood to community to district to region, scientists are mapping a disturbingly predictable trend: marginalized communities are suffering at much higher rates than privileged communities.
“Infectious diseases more easily take hold in groups with pre-existing illnesses and who must live in crowded conditions and work next to others,” reports Ann Gibbons in Science Magazine.
The people least likely to have adequate healthcare coverage and most likely to suffer from pre-existing conditions: asthma, diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), and obesity reside in the poorest city boroughs, in Southern rural districts, and on Native American tribal reservations.
These are also the people most likely to be working in frontline service industries during the coronavirus pandemic: grocery store workers, delivery drivers, building custodians, and agricultural laborers. The people most likely to rely on public transportation, to live in multi-family households, to live in food desserts with no local grocery stores or pharmacies.
In Michigan, black Americans comprise 14.1 percent of the state population, but an ungodly 40 percent of coronavirus deaths. In Milwaukee, black Americans make up 26 percent of the county, but nearly half of the infections and a maddening 81 percent of deaths as of Friday.
The number of Asian Americans living in poverty grew 44 percent from 2000 to 2016, according to the Asian American Federation. Perhaps their growing poverty helps explain the high infection rates in zip codes with large Asian populations in NYC.
— Ibram X. Kendi
Yet most local health departments are not releasing data on coronavirus impacts delineated by race. A form of denial by omission.
To make things worse, the same populations acutely suffering from the Covid-19 pandemic are acutely impacted by the climate crisis.
Cancer clusters and health conditions like asthma, cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases are linked to air pollution from petroleum refineries and coal-based industries (fossil fuel emissions being the top contributor to increased greenhouse gasses driving global warming) primarily centered in poorer and immigrant neighborhoods. These chronic health conditions increase vulnerability to Covid-19.
“Communities of color, they’ve always been the sacrifice zones.”
Households living in slums or unprotected, low-lying areas suffer the most from climate change-amped hurricanes and typhoons: consider who suffered the most following Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, witness the heart-wrenching testimony by filmmakers following super-typhoon Yolanda in The Philippines.
Years after the devastating wildfires in Northern California that destroyed fifty percent of Lake County and obliterated the town of Paradise, thousands of families remain homeless: these are the people who lived in trailers, who worked at minimum-wage jobs, were undocumented, or all of the above. These are the people who are also uninsured. Hungry. Sick.
In the end, though, no group of Americans may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the incarcerated and the homeless. About 40 percent of people experiencing homelessness are black, triple their share of the U.S population. Brown and black people comprise 56 percent of the prison population, doubling their combined share of the U.S. adult population.
–Ibram X. Kendi
Current threats faced by disadvantaged communities have the potential to become even more catastrophic this summer and fall.
A recent article in ProPublica by Abrahm Lustgarten pointed out the impending dual crises of Covid-19 and natural disasters amped up by climate change: people forced to evacuate due to wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods while the pandemic is ongoing. As Lustgarten emphasizes, “how do you shelter in place during an evacuation? How will people maintain physical distancing?”
It’s easy to see how flight from the threat of nature could lead to a resurgence of contagion, starting a whole new wave of infections spreading across the country.
— Abrahm Lustgarten
In both cases: the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis, scientists sounded the alarm early and frequently. In both cases, the Republican-dominated US administration deliberately failed to act with the urgency required to save lives and economies.
Recent investigative articles in the New York Times and The Guardian newspapers have demonstrated, relying on an exhaustive review of official correspondence and speeches, that for six weeks the Trump administration repeatedly chose to ignore the advice of key advisors and experts in the National Security Council, the Health and Human Services Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health.
Denial is a costly enterprise: one that is far more expensive for those already living on the edge. This is why the continued lack of adequate coronavirus testing is most acute in low-income neighborhoods. And similar to the positive feedback loops of the climate crisis, the positive feedback loop of the coronavirus crisis plays out like this: less testing –> more unintentional spread of coronavirus –> more untracked coronavirus cases –> more Covid-19 hospitalizations –> more deaths –> higher socio-cultural and economic impacts, especially for poor families.
“Predatory delay,” the term coined by futurist Alex Steffen, describes the deliberate denial or blockage of necessary acts or interventions for profit and the continuation of unjust systems.
We see this in the Trump administration’s refusal to consider the legitimacy or urgency of the climate crisis in favor of oil and coal industries whose toxic waste most heavily impacts marginalized communities from Appalachia to the Amazon. We see this in the denial of affordable healthcare by Republican governors who refused to extend Medicaid to vulnerable urban neighborhoods, causing thousands of unnecessary deaths even before the pandemic started.
In his response to COVID-19, President Donald Trump has made statements that ignore, question or distort mainstream science. But long before the virus arrived — even before he became president — he was using similar techniques to deny climate change.
— Katelyn Weisbrod
Using a quote-by-quote comparative timeline, Inside Climate News web producer Katelyn Weisbrod outlines eerily identical denial tactics by Trump when facing the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis: wishing away the science, misusing scientific data, making stuff up, blaming China, blaming the Democrats, and ignoring expert advice.
In stark contrast to deniers, climate crisis activists are, by their very nature, truth-speakers and environmental and social justice activists.
Climate crisis activists like Kim Bryan of 350.org connect the dots: “Many scientists say the climate crisis will cause more pandemics and illnesses, and the impacts of the climate crisis will cause huge disruptions to people. Having witnessed the disruption this has caused, let’s try and future-proof our globe.”
The pandemic has slowed most of the world down. For those of us with the luxuries of time, internet access, and literacy, we can make the logical connection: Climate Crisis + Coronavirus Crisis + Denial = Injustice.
There is nothing stopping us from addressing this injustice. When we realize and act upon the reality –to use an oft-quoted pandemic phrase– that we are truly “all in this together,” we can harness our collective power and reinvent our collective future.
Let us begin.