Climate change and the impacts caused by climate change disproportionately impact communities of color, even though they are not the primary actors of pollution. This can result in issues like flooding, extreme heat events, and air pollution directly affecting communities with high percentages of residents that are lower-income and people of color. This topic was explored more deeply during a presentation, “Climate Change and Racism”, by Dr. Ayres Freitas at the Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit. 

While the summit addressed issues of racial and social justice at large, Dr. Freitas, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, narrowed in on climate justice and climate equity. Global temperatures are escalating rapidly and catastrophic weather events are increasing in frequency due to human activities and emissions, and the responses of governments worldwide have been tepid at best. The effects have been felt here in the Nine Mile Run watershed and Pennsylvania, where rainfall levels are at an unforeseen high and only seem to be climbing year-over-year, according to data provided by Dr. Freitas.

As Dr. Freitas explained, some of the worst impacts of the climate crisis have been felt by a demographic labeled the Global South, a term used to describe systematically disadvantaged countries and subgroups within countries. Dr. Freitas pointed out a number of examples of Global South communities that have been disproportionately impacted; here are just a few. 

  • In India, farmer suicides, correlated with temperature increases, have become a major issue.
  • Around the world, the homes of hundreds of millions of people will be threatened by flooding by 2050, as you can see in dramatic flooding maps created by the New York Times.
  • Here in the U.S, a study cited by Dr. Freitas indicates that formerly redlined neighborhoods continue to have negative environmental outcomes (see graphic below). (In the 20th century, banks used redlining to deem communities of color untrustworthy for loans.)
A slide from Dr. Freitas’ presentation. Provided courtesy Dr. Ayres Freitas.

Lending data to this narrative, Dr. Freitas shared that the U.S. was among the highest CO2 polluters per person in the world. Most coastal countries in Asia that are projected to be impacted greatly by the crisis did not have nearly the same CO2 pollution levels. This exemplifies the asymmetric relationship between those that cause climate change and those who will pay the price for it.

As an individual, figuring out ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint and participating in collective actions such as protests against corporate pollution were recommended to combat this issue by Dr. Freitas, who led the seminar audience into a discussion. In his slideshow, he recommended an emphasis on “the racial justice dimension of climate change.”

Dr. Freitas summarized his overall message in an email:  

“Our inaction on preventing climate change is a blatant disregard of the well-being of communities of color and poor people in the Global South and in the U.S.”

In Pittsburgh, black men and women suffer disproportionately on a variety of health outcomes, including living shorter lives than their white counterparts, according to a 2019 study commissioned by the city government. For black men and women in Pittsburgh, many of these outcomes, including adult and older adult mortality, are worse than in almost any other comparable American city, according to that same study. It is important for us to realize that climate change is a public health issue. Housing damaged by flooding leads to mold and eventually breathing problems. Communities built alongside industrial areas battle air pollution at higher rates. This is the story of climate change and how it is impacting communities of color here in Pittsburgh and the watershed. 

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The environmental justice movement has a long history of fighting the outrage of toxic sites disproportionately placed near low-income communities and communities of color. NMRWA strongly supports environmental justice in greater Pittsburgh. Two of our watershed communities, Wilkinsburg and Swissvale, were rated as “high need” environmental justice priorities by the Allegheny County Health Department in 2019. Four additional communities in our sewershed were rated “high need” or “highest need”: Homewood North, Homewood South, Penn Hills, and East Hills. We strive to help these communities, and all of our communities, increase their climate equity through resilient infrastructure, both built and social.

By John Lavaccare, Communications Intern