The Unequal Effects of Climate Change on Vulnerable Communities

Environment Policy Brief #165 | By: Devyne Byrd | February 27, 2024
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As the world contends with the negative effects of climate change, lower-income communities are often hit the hardest due to environmental injustice. The intersection of climate change, class, and social factors combine to unequally impact poorer communities and make avoiding natural disasters and recovering from them exceedingly difficult.

A major source of environmental injustice is zoning and land use policies that allow industrial facilities that pollute the air and water to be located in low-income areas. There is a stretch of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans commonly called Cancer Alley. Local zoning ordinances have encouraged the implementation of factories, refineries, and other industries that heavily pollute natural resources. The local governments also include tax breaks, and subsidies to encourage factory expansion in the area. The residents of the land who are low-income and predominantly Black and Hispanic, bear the brunt of the consequences of these zoning laws, reporting higher cases of asthma and cancer.

The hardships these communities face are a direct result of the discrimination against low-income communities as they take on an unequal share of the consequences of environmental decline. Additionally, although poorer communities account for less global emissions, they are more affected by climate change because they tend to be located in areas that are prone to the extreme weather that climate change causes such as flooding or hurricanes. Because of the land’s susceptibility to natural disasters, it is often cheaper and the only place poorer communities can afford to live.  The housing itself is often of lower quality, lacking proper insulation or construction materials that would keep them safe during natural disasters.

Finally, after low-income communities are affected by natural disasters and discriminatory zoning, they then have to contend with decreased access to medical and emergency services. Poorer populations tend to struggle with obtaining health insurance and have fewer healthcare facilities in their vicinity. This makes obtaining assistance prohibitively expensive and often delays seeking medical care which leads to poorer outcomes. In conjunction with climate change exacerbating existing health care inequalities as discussed previously, poorer communities have higher incidences of serious illness and death due to climate disasters.

Poorer communities continue to bear a disproportionate burden of the effects of the worsening climate. Due to their lower income, parties affected by environmental injustice hold less power in the political landscape to advocate for changes or to relocate from hazardous areas. These already vulnerable communities are left to the will of politicians and the wealthy to reduce emissions and not actively put pollutants into their areas. This emphasizes the need for immediate action to alleviate the pressures put on these communities and the lessening of climate change.

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