The Un-Level Playing Field: Marginalized Communities and their Climate Change Battle

The climate emergency our current world faces will inevitably impact us all. However, poorer, marginalized communities are already facing the brunt of consequences and will remain at much higher risk than those who are wealthier and able to afford repairs. The United States is one of the most developed countries in the world, yet citizens of color and low income communities are disproportionally affected by the wrath of climate change.

Marginalized communities have and will continue to experience climate emergency consequences through health difficulties, home wreckage, and increased financial instability. For decades, the fossil fuel industry and greedy politicians have lagged to prioritize the safety of all Americans, as exhibited by the shocking blows that poor families have been forced to endure with little to no help.

According to the NAACP poorer communities, often also communities of color, are closer to toxic energy facilities, have less resources and means to recover from natural disasters, and have less access to health care and nutritious foods. Communities of color breathe in 40% more polluted air than White communities across the US, according to the NAACP’s 2012 “Coal-Blooded” study. Though African-Americans make up 13% of the US population, a startling 68% live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, compared to 56% of Whites (61% of U.S. population). Furthermore, although Latinos make up 17% of the US population, 39% live within a 30-mile radius from a coal plant. Native American Lands are also home to many large coal reserves, which in the eyes of the fossil fuel industry, take priority over the inhabitant’s health.

Communities of color are also much more likely to be near toxic waste disposal sites. The oil accident in the Gulf of Mexico ten years ago leaked up to 184 million gallons of oil into the Gulf where the environment faced devastating setbacks. However, what some people may not have realized is that the pollution that was cleaned up was transported to landfills in mostly African American communities in Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida. Just a year before (2009), 3.9 million tons of coal ash spilled from a Tennessee Valley Authority power plan, the toxic coal ash was shipped more than 300 miles away from the site of the accident into a rural, mostly Black community landfill in Perry County, Alabama.

Although the clean water crisis in Flint, Michigan, may not have been directly correlated to Climate Change the scandal exhibits how the marginalized victims unnecessarily struggled to be heard and helped; 9,000 children under 6 years old in Flint face high risks for neurological damage after being exposed to tainted water from toxic lead poisoning. Where more than half of the city’s population is African American it took years for the crisis to gain the media coverage and exposure it so desperately needed as local officials failed to abide by legally mandated water treatments and deferred the people’s complaints.

Hurricane Katrina was a Category 5 tropical cyclone that occurred in August 2005, which caused $125 billion in damage, particularly in the city of New Orleans and the surrounding areas, and over 1,200 deaths.

Another aspect of climate change that we’ve witnessed grow worse is an increase in extreme weather like hurricanes and droughts. The risk low income communities face from natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey is not rocket science: it’s expensive to fortify a real estate’s (whether a home, business, or other) safety and even more to repair damages. Therefore, poorer communities have not only less resources to protect their livelihoods from natural disasters but when they’re destroyed they have even less means to recover.

California is a prime example of how droughts and water shortages will directly impact specifically Latino populations, as they make up a large portion of the state’s farmers that grow the food for the country and its exports. Droughts and water shortages will make crop yields less successful or lead to smaller batches, requiring less work and therefore hiring less workers.

Remember the U.S. is 61% white, meaning it’s important to take into account how disproportionately some races are uninsured

Healthcare is a whole other topic, in 2018, 8.5% of people, or 27.5 million, did not have health insurance at any point during the year. The uninsured rate and number of uninsured increased from 2017 (7.9% or 25.6 million). Health insurance is not free or guaranteed, meaning low income families are much more likely to be uninsured than families who can afford to pay for it, again, not rocket science. If everyone faced the same level of risk lacking health care would be dangerous enough, but the cards are so stacked against low income communities that they are actually more likely to contract health issues from pollution, less access to affordable nutritious food, and resources. Not only do they not have health care, they’re also more likely to need it!

Unfortunately, natural disasters are not devastating history of the past, and pollution from toxic facilities will continue while the fossil fuel industry thrives. Climate change does not intentionally target poorer, marginalized communities, but the countries of these citizens leave them unprotected and even turn a blind eye. Is it a coincidence that toxic facilities are far from wealthy (mostly White) communities, or is industry taking advantage of the lack of political power marginalized communities possess?

We don’t need to look into the future for the possible effects of climate change, marginalized communities have already been enduring the consequences for years. It’s important to remember that when fighting for a clean, sustainable, and safe future, we must take into account that the country is not on a level playing field and some communities are already feeling the pressures to survive.


Published by Sofia Manriquez

Founder of I'm passionate about all things environmental, although I've always had a particular connection with the ocean since I've grown up loving the beach. I would love to collaborate with others and meet friends who share environmental passions!

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