By Kait Spielmaker
They say that hindsight is 20/20. When we look back on this moment in history, is that what we will say? Within 2020 specifically, we have seen just how vulnerable we are in the wake of a pandemic, raising questions of our resiliency to existential threats in our society, such as climate change. We have spent most of the year now living through that vulnerability and uncertainty, paired with uncomfortable conversations and realizations encompassing race relations here in the United States. The confluence of environmental injustices predominately pertaining to race and climate change comes to form the term climate justice. What exactly does that mean?
For years, people have viewed climate change as a distant threat, something that won’t happen in their lifetime or neighborhood. In the minds of many in Western societies, climate change destroys far-off places like rainforests, the Arctic, and animals like polar bears—not their beach houses in Miami, urban cities, or even their own backyard in their suburban subdivision. But the fact is, we are simply living in that reality and we can see it beginning to disrupt our communities, crops, and livelihood.
Climate Change and Pollution of Marginalized Communities
Low-income and underdeveloped areas in urban cities and across the world are impacted the most by climate change and pollution but contribute the least. According to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, only about 3% of the global landmass is occupied by cities, yet those areas contribute to 60%-80% of global energy consumption and 75% of global carbon emissions.
Urban cities are the epicenters of economic growth, GDP, and development that feeds modern consumerism. Disenfranchised communities are most susceptible to encountering the environmental hazards that are the byproduct of this continued GDP growth. The threats consist of issues such as poor air quality or toxic run-off into nearby water sources from local pollution sites or emission-producing plants. Exposure to these hazards can lead to heightened stress and mental illness, health problems, and sometimes even premature death. Policy tends to not reflect the voices of these communities, making it easier to overlook particular neighborhoods and the inadequate infrastructure that exists in them.
Income and class are indicators of someone’s carbon footprint. A family like the Kardashians are going to have a much larger carbon footprint—from their private jets to their beauty lines and elaborate vacations, they contribute immensely to carbon emissions. When thinking about marginalized groups in America—but also globally—they tend to contribute the least but are often most affected. The Kardashians aren’t subject to the vulnerabilities of a changing climate and they are rarely affected by their own contribution to the planet. Poor communities, on the other hand, deal with these impacts every day, and often with increasing intensity.
Climate gentrification is one of the latest occurrences happening as a direct result of climate change, known to exacerbate communities already vulnerable to housing shortages and socio-economic inequalities. Using Miami as an example, beachfront property and property close to the shoreline have always been held for affluent, often white, homeowners, and something that low-income people of color couldn’t afford. Due to years of redlining, people of color often lived more inland, at higher elevations, where it was more affordable and generally neglected. Since Miami has been known for intense flooding and subject to more natural disasters like hurricanes, home property value along the coast is beginning to decline, while classic gentrification is increasing in these once undesirable neighborhoods. Homebuyers want to invest in a home that is resilient to climate change and not going to be underwater in 50 years, meaning they are driving up the cost of living and real estate in these once poor, predominantly neighborhoods of color.
Like all other types of gentrification, climate gentrification pushes out current residents because they can no longer afford to live there and forces them into places that are now becoming undesirable due to environmental vulnerability. Moreover, many low-income households do not have the resources or financial capabilities to renovate their living spaces to make them more resilient to climate-related disasters and weather patterns. Many of the local governments in these communities lack proper infrastructure or funding to put forth climate initiatives and robust sustainability plans like more affluent communities, leaving residents with a lack of resources, information, and ability to adapt to environmental changes.
Urban Heat Island Effect in Phoenix
Phoenix is known for being the hottest city in America. Perfectly positioned in a valley in the middle of a desert, it has been dubbed the “Valley of the Sun.” That name sounds enticing for out-of-towners, and it is for about 8 months of the year when tourists flock here to escape the harsh winters in the northern states. What about the other four months of the year, where Phoenix is home to some of the highest temperatures in the country? That is called the heat island effect, and this disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods and people of color.
Natural ecosystems have capabilities of mitigating heat, but the way we have built our urban environments dismantle those systems and instead absorb and trap heat. Our roads, buildings, and lack of trees and shady spaces all escalate our already scorching, notorious summer days. Edison Eastlake, a neighborhood just northwest of Sky Harbor Airport, is a historic byproduct of redlining, which still has impacts on the community today. Most residents are low-income people of color living in old buildings not updated to keep out the heat, meaning their energy bills can be unaffordable and home to only 5% tree coverage. Without adequate shade to enhance natural heat solutions, this area is one of the hottest neighborhoods in Maricopa County, and the heat mortality rate is 20 times higher than the county’s average.
Moving Towards Resiliency
So why does climate justice matter? It matters because climate change exacerbates and reinforces social inequalities in our own cities and globally. As a society, it is important to see and understand how climate change intersects with social and political issues. From there as a collective community, we can work towards solutions, such as improved infrastructure, that close gaps of inequity between different socioeconomic groups, and make everyone resilient to climate change threats, rather than just those who can afford it.
Additional Resources for further research on this topic:
Keep up with all of Green Living’s content by visiting our website.
Kait Spielmaker is a Michigan native who relocated to Phoenix and is the digital coordinator at Green Living Magazine. She is an avid hiker, backpacker, and adventurer who advocates for a better future and equity for all. She just completed her master’s degree in Sustainable Tourism at Arizona State University.