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The Inequality Underlying Climate Change

There is no doubt that the effects of climate change are escalating at an alarming rate. From forest fires to tropical storms, recent weather events are some of the most intense we’ve ever seen—and this is only the beginning. The 2021 IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, gravely illustrates the severe effects of global warming and what will happen if we don’t work to solve it. The report, which is the most up-to-date physical understanding of climate change, outlines many concerning statistics. The last decade was warmer than any period for about 125,000 years, with no sign of it slowing down. In addition, the ocean is warming at a faster rate than at any time since the end of the last Ice Age and concentrations of carbon dioxide are at a level that has been unmatched for at least 2 million years. The report also estimates that the world may warm 4.4 degrees Celsius by 2100, which will lead to catastrophic events. 

These environmental and precipitative events impact everyone, but not equally. There is an undeniable link between the effects of climate change and economic disparity, with poorer communities being impacted harder than their wealthier counterparts. Low-income communities are more likely to be found in areas of high pollution and closer to environmental hazards, which from birth can lead to the development of various health complications such as asthma.  

Pollution isn’t the only long term effect that is disproportionately targeting the poorer communities. According to Forbes, low income neighborhoods, specifically in cities, cluster together and form a “heat island” effect. This is due to the darker colored materials that are used to construct many roads and buildings. Because of their color, they don’t allow much heat to escape, which leads to higher temperatures in the city overall. The heat island effect is especially concerning because the people in these communities are also less likely to have access to air conditioning. While those who can afford air conditioning can escape the rising temperatures by cooling off indoors, the dangerously high temperatures create a potentially fatal issue for those who do not have that luxury. 

Along with increasing temperatures and pollution, global warming is bringing with it more severe natural disasters and weather events. Recently, the flooding in New York City due to Hurricane Ida exposed how various communities can be affected in different ways. Most of the deaths from the flooding were immigrants living in basement apartments. These basement apartments, which number approximately 50,000 in New York City alone, provide relatively cheap housing for individuals and families. They are illegally converted cellars and basements that are meant for storage or piping, not for housing. Many of these apartments are without windows or protection from fires which can create a deadly trap within minutes of an emergency, such as flooding from hurricanes. However, for many people, it is the only option that they can afford, and so they must take the risk.

Even when there is a warning before a natural disaster, many don’t think about the resources that are needed to be able to evacuate a home. For Americans living below the poverty line, the issue isn’t about leaving in time, but about having enough money saved to temporarily relocate. Even if they manage to evacuate, their homes are often not protected from natural disasters in the same ways as those who can afford to spend money on protective roofing or windows. Power outages experienced from storms, sometimes lasting weeks, allows those who can afford generators to thrive over those who cannot. All of this doesn’t even account for the lack of proper insurance most of these families and communities have, leaving them with little to salvage after destruction. 

The challenges of climate change and the increasing number of severe weather events brings with it a continuous disregard for those who need help the most. It has been shown that after natural disasters, richer and predominantly white counties have seen an increase in average wealth. On the other hand, poorer communities composed mostly of minorities have seen a decrease in wealth. With something as universal as weather, how is there an undeniable and dangerous gap not only in protection, but in recovery? 

With worsening and more deadly effects from climate change occurring every year, this issue is only going to grow. What we see happening is the perpetuation of an unjust system in which the rich are the highest contributors to pollution and climate change overall, and yet the effects disproportionately impact those who least contribute to the problem. You cannot participate in climate activism without addressing the inequality that is so clearly present. Systems need to be put in place to protect these communities now and for the future that is to come.

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Biology major who loves coffee, reading, and pretending like I know what I'm doing.