Quantcast

Why Climate Change Hurts the Poor the Most

Insights + Opinion
Chemical plants surround a cemetery in "Cancer Alley" in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Oct, 15, 2013. Giles Clarke / Getty Images

By Mallika Khanna

If you've read anything about climate change over the past year, you've probably heard about the IPCC report that gives a 12-year deadline for limiting climate change catastrophe. But for many parts of the world, climate change already is a catastrophe.


Recently in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India, more than 40 people were killed by a severe heat wave in just one day. A study by UNICEF suggests that "in the next decade, 175 million children will be hit by climate-related disasters in South Asia and Africa alone." Closer to home, Miami's steady sinking is depleting usable drinking water at an alarming rate.

The truth is, vulnerable communities have been dealing with the effects of climate change and environmental pollution for decades now.

The 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans — aptly nicknamed Cancer Alley — is a stark example. Thanks to petrochemical pollution there, Louisiana at one point suffered the second-highest death rate from cancer in the U.S., with some localities near chemical plants getting cancer from air pollution at 700 times the national average.

This is no accident: Corporations deliberately target places like Cancer Alley because they're home to socially and economically disadvantaged people whom the corporations assume can't fight back.

There's even a name for it: "least resistant personality profiles." Sociologist Arlie Hochschild discovered this term in a 1984 study done by a consulting firm to determine where a waste board could build a plant without local communities complaining.

According to the study, the people least likely to protest having their health put at risk were typically "longtime residents of small towns in the South or Midwest, high school educated only, Catholic, uninvolved in social issues, and without a history of activism, involved in mining, farming, ranching, conservative, Republican, advocates of the free market."

While this study only tells part of the story, it does a lot to explain why poor communities face the worst consequences of climate change and pollution. These inequities cut across racial lines: As Hochschild's study shows, "least resistant personalities" include small town, working-class white communities in the South and Midwest, as well as poor black people in places like Cancer Alley.

The problem isn't just corporations, but government at all levels.

After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, the federal government did next to nothing. The comparison between the responses to 9/11 and Hurricane Maria — whose death tolls were almost exactly the same — highlights just how overlooked the suffering caused to marginalized communities by climate change is.

The idea that environmentalism is an "elite" concern is a lie. Those who stand to gain the most from sweeping environmental protections are the marginalized people corporations assume can be put in toxic environments without fear of backlash.

That's the best reason yet to support a Green New Deal, which would not only curb climate change, but also revitalize the U.S. economy, create millions of jobs, and create alternatives to harmful, unsustainable industries like the petrochemical industry in Cancer Alley that have harmed people for years.

That could make poor communities a lot less poor — and a lot more resilient.

The only way to move forward is to fight back against corporations that deliberately target the people they think can't fight back — and against a government seemingly unconcerned about the effects of pollution and climate change. The catastrophe is happening now, but so is the movement to combat it.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Natural Resources Defense Council

By Emily Deanne

Shower shoes? Check. Extra-long sheets? Yep. Energy efficiency checklist? No worries — we've got you covered there. If you're one of the nation's 12.1 million full-time undergraduate college students, you no doubt have a lot to keep in mind as you head off to school. If you're reading this, climate change is probably one of them, and with one-third of students choosing to live on campus, dorm life can have a big impact on the health of our planet. In fact, the annual energy use of one typical dormitory room can generate as much greenhouse gas pollution as the tailpipe emissions of a car driven more than 156,000 miles.

Read More Show Less
Kokia drynarioides, commonly known as Hawaiian tree cotton, is a critically endangered species of flowering plant that is endemic to the Big Island of Hawaii. David Eickhoff / Wikipedia

By Lorraine Chow

Kokia drynarioides is a small but significant flowering tree endemic to Hawaii's dry forests. Native Hawaiians used its large, scarlet flowers to make lei. Its sap was used as dye for ropes and nets. Its bark was used medicinally to treat thrush.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Frederick Bass / Getty Images

States that invest heavily in renewable energy will generate billions of dollars in health benefits in the next decade instead of spending billions to take care of people getting sick from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, according to a new study from MIT and reported on by The Verge.

Read More Show Less
Aerial view of lava flows from the eruption of volcano Kilauea on Hawaii, May 2018. Frizi / iStock / Getty Images

Hawaii's Kilauea volcano could be gearing up for an eruption after a pond of water was discovered inside its summit crater for the first time in recorded history, according to the AP.

Read More Show Less
A couple works in their organic garden. kupicoo / E+ / Getty Images

By Kristin Ohlson

From where I stand inside the South Dakota cornfield I was visiting with entomologist and former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren, all the human-inflicted traumas to Earth seem far away. It isn't just that the corn is as high as an elephant's eye — are people singing that song again? — but that the field burgeons and buzzes and chirps with all sorts of other life, too.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A competitor in action during the Drambuie World Ice Golf Championships in Uummannaq, Greenland on April 9, 2001. Michael Steele / Allsport / Getty Images

Greenland is open for business, but it's not for sale, Greenland's foreign minister Ane Lone Bagger told Reuters after hearing that President Donald Trump asked his advisers about the feasibility of buying the world's largest island.

Read More Show Less
AFP / Getty Images / S. Platt

Humanity faced its hottest month in at least 140 years in July, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said on Thursday. The finding confirms similar analysis provided by its EU counterparts.

Read More Show Less
Newly established oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

By Hans Nicholas Jong

Indonesia's president has made permanent a temporary moratorium on forest-clearing permits for plantations and logging.

It's a policy the government says has proven effective in curtailing deforestation, but whose apparent gains have been criticized by environmental activists as mere "propaganda."

Read More Show Less