A Look at Climate Change and Why Black People Will Be Among Those Hardest Hit

Climate Change

Semantic satiation. This is that strange phenomenon that happens when you hear a word or phrase repeated over and over again and slowly it loses its meaning. You become so disconnected from it that it starts to feel like wispy, white noise.  For a lot of us, this is what’s happened with “climate change.” Everywhere, we hear it, but do we hear it? Climate change may seem like some far-off wonder relevant only to things hued white – glaciers, polar bears, hippies.

But here’s the gag: most experts agree that the factors that contribute to climate change and the resulting effects will hit poor communities and communities of color the hardest. Carbon emissions are increasing, the planet is warming, and the threat is real and not as distant as we may think. It looks like asthma, floods, infant mortality, poisoned water and deadly heat waves, but there’s an army of climate change advocates and scientists working to slow climate change and appease Mother Nature.

Getting a Reading

Earth warming is not the problem by itself; rather, it’s how quickly the temperatures are rising that’s cause for alarm. The global temperature has risen 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, according to NASA. That may sound small, but that’s fast compared to other periods in Earth’s history, and we are almost certainly to blame. Climate change deniers can go sit in a corner along with the flat-earthers, because there’s an overwhelming consensus amongst scientists that this rapid warming is the result of human activity.

Sunlight passes through Earth’s atmosphere, warms the surface and is then radiated back toward space, but there’s a layer of greenhouse gases blanketing the planet. So, what’s happening is that instead of the heat being released back into space, it’s getting trapped and absorbed. It’s like when you snap a lid on a pot of chili to force it to heat through faster.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a major greenhouse emissions player. Of course, we breathe out carbon, but it also gets released by way of deforestation, land use changes, and importantly, through the burning of fossil fuels, like coal and oil. NASA credits us with increasing the atmospheric carbon concentration by a third since the Industrial Revolution. Also harmful is water vapor, methane and nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas produced by soil cultivation practices.


“Right now, there’s a lot of hubbub about the Chrysler expansion proposed on the east side,” says Guy Williams, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice president and CEO. The plan for a $4.5-billion Fiat Chrysler assembly plant would add 6,500 jobs to southeast Michigan, which Williams says would be great but wonders what the human and environmental costs will be. “That plant, because of its size, is going to add a lot more volatile organic compounds to the emissions on the east side and the surrounding region.”

In addition to the negative effects on the environment and the planet at large, such emissions can cause pneumonia, bronchitis, headaches, lung cancer, heart disease, birth defects and other illnesses, reports National Geographic. Williams says, “One of the positives is that the techniques that would be used to reduce the pollution related to climate change tend to be changes that would also bring about better air quality overall.”

Dr. Richard Rood, University of Michigan professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, says, “Michigan, Wisconsin and, to some extent, all of the Great Lakes is an interesting region because in a comparative sense, it is a climate winner. We have a lot of water (and) the lakes have sort of a moderating effect on climate. I suspect that as people are displaced from the coast over the next few decades by sea level rise and flooding, and maybe even the drought conditions that’ll increase in the Southwest and in Southern California, I’m actually imagining that people will see Michigan as a desirable place to move to.” Still, Rood, who worked for over a decade at NASA, reminds, “We will definitely be affected by climate change; everyone will.”

Color and Climate

As mentioned, manufacturing plants have a significant effect on air quality. And where are most of them? In cities – and, more specifically, near communities of color. According to a 2016 report funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of asthma among Detroit adults was 29 percent higher than in Michigan as a whole, and the rate of asthma hospitalizations for whites in Detroit was about 35 percent less than black people in Detroit.

“What people don’t understand is how badly there’s a disproportionate impact of pollution generated in our normal course of life worldwide, but particularly in the United States because we’re such a large consumer nation,” Williams says. “So, we’re creating, using and releasing chemicals of all kinds in all manner of exposure to the public. Several decades of research has shown that exposure to these different types of chemicals cause illness and death in much higher proportion among people of color than the general population.”

Detroit is not just an urban jungle, it’s also an “urban heat island,” says Tony Reames, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at U-M and the director of its Urban Energy Justice Lab. His work focuses on a consideration of the disparities in affordability, access to renewable energy, access to energy efficient programs and the like. Due to fewer trees, less vegetation and human activity, cities tend to be hotter than rural areas. “As the climate continues to warm, temperatures in those areas will be higher. So, that’s going to lead to increased energy uses, which increases people’s bills, which increases unaffordability,” Reames says.

Heat waves are the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States. The National Weather Service released a report that said in the 30 years between 1986 and 2015, an average of 130 people died per year due to extreme heat. As the planet warms, we’re seeing more heat waves, and black and poor people are less likely to live in well-insulated homes, which means wasted energy, and typically have less access to air conditioning and places to go to cool off. The next highest killer was flooding, claiming an average of 81 lives per year, also an issue in southeast Michigan. “We’re seeing increases in precipitation, especially in the spring,” says Michigan Climate Action Network director Kate Madigan. She recalls the infamous flood of 2014 that dumped on the city and left thousands with ruined cars and wrecked homes; some had insurance, many didn’t.

“This isn’t just about reducing our greenhouse gas emissions but also making sure that communities are able to adjust and to prepare for the impacts,” Madigan says. “We want to make sure that the solutions to climate change are benefiting everyone, and that it’s a just transition and that the economic benefits are going to people who need it the most.”

Professor Rood echoes that sentiment, saying, “I think it’s important to not just think about the effects of climate change but to start to think about how policies that perhaps help you cope with climate change – like FEMA and flood insurance – how the communities benefit from that rather than it just becoming another transfer of wealth. There are long-standing issues of communities of color (and) less wealthy communities having sort of outsized or larger impacts from environmental issues, and climate change is no different.”

Adjusting the Dial

In the summer of 2017, President Donald Trump declared that he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. Signed in 2015, the climate agreement between 195 nations was intended to bind the world’s leaders into finding solutions to rising temperatures as a united collective. “I think it’s a major mistake that we’re trying to pull out of the Paris accord,” says Rood. “But the Paris accord is not nearly enough. So I think we have to stay diligent because it’s really important that we reduce our emissions in order to keep climate change manageable.”

After Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took office in January, she announced that she’d be creating a new office of climate and energy to coordinate efforts across state government to address climate change. She also signed on to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of state governors committed to upholding the principles of the Paris agreement. Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice commissioned a 78-page Climate Action Plan for Detroit, a step-by-step guide to solution.

Customarily, such a plan would be enacted by city government, but this was in the midst of Detroit’s bankruptcy and emergency management fiasco. Williams of DWEJ says, “We recognized that if there was going to be something in place in a reasonable time frame, someone other than city government had to take the initiative to get the ball rolling. Our hope was that the mayor would step up and embrace this work and move it forward vigorously and become a champion for a clean, sustainable city. That has not occurred.”

The Guardian recently reported on California-based botanist Dr. Joanne Chory’s Ideal Plant project. She wants to design genetically modified “super plants” capable of storing more carbon dioxide in their roots, which, on a large scale, could suck enough of it from our atmosphere to slow climate change. Rood says creative solutions like Chory’s are all the rage within the climate community.

“There are people thinking about ways to store carbon in the soil, people thinking about new agricultural techniques. There are people thinking about direct removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with things that are almost like synthetic trees,” he says. “There’s an enormous number of people thinking about these things. There’s some proof of concept ideas that are out there but to scale them up and make them cheap enough becomes the real problem.” Thinking back to that proposed Chrysler plant, the responsibility of our region’s auto industry can’t be understated. “We are going through a transition from the internal combustion engine to the electric vehicle, and our auto industry has an opportunity to lead,” says Madigan, director at MiCAN. “Because our state has started the transition off of coal, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions now is transportation fuels in our state.”

As far as our roles as individuals, we need to be reducing our physical waste and energy waste as much as possible. “The easiest way to reduce emissions in the short term – and it generally saves money – is to be more efficient. We actually waste more than half the energy we generate in the United States,” Rood says. So, switching to LED lightbulbs or improving the insulation in your home are useful actions. And, “Eating less meat does have an important impact on the climate,” he adds. A different article in The Guardian called avoiding meat and dairy products “the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.

Reames says he understands that the choice between a 50-cent incandescent bulb and a $4 LED one may seem simple, but it’s not to a family of limited means. “How do you sit down with somebody with a 15-to-20-page contract about putting solar on your roof and all they really want to know is, ‘OK, how much money do I need to pay and how much is it going to save me?’ I think that’s one of our big challenges, thinking about how we make this real for people,” he says. All the experts agree that education, community organization and advocacy are key to adaptation and ensuring environmental justice for all.

Rood adds that scientists need to do a better job of engaging directly with the community. “I think that scientists need to be part of the public discourse. Historically, scientists have sort of stood like priests of knowledge. And I think that that sort of outsider, superior knowledge elitism, you could call it, does not serve society well and it’s not correct, and actually it’s one of the reasons it’s been difficult to engage communities of color. I think it’s important that we get science-literate people in communities to become voices for those communities.”

Before the problem of climate change reaches critical mass, Rood says, “I think we have some decades, as long as we can keep the change so we can manage it on decadal time scales. I think we have the creativity and the adaptation skills to do that, but if we burn up all the fossil fuels and keep growing the population and consuming the way we are, I think ultimately we will see resource collapses before we see the climate becoming uninhabitable. Climate will become an amplifier – a ‘threat multiplier,’ the Department of Defense calls it – and cause instability and it will not be pretty.”

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