EAST BOSTON, Mass. – The Shore Plaza East apartments have a stunning skyline view of downtown Boston across the harbor: Waves lap at the foot of the eight-story building; sailboats carve foam trails in the water.
These could be million-dollar condos. But, buffeted by winds and the threat of storm-water flooding, these apartments are subsidized housing, reserved for the poor.
"I worry about the water. The weather is changing a lot," said Margaret Orzco, who has lived here three years and is one of thousands of immigrants in this struggling, working-class neighborhood. "And the wind is scary. It sounds like a tornado."
Despite their first-class view, Orzco and her neighbors are especially vulnerable to whatever the air and water may bring to East Boston, a neighborhood that's a magnet for immigrants. That vulnerability puts them, and poor communities like theirs, in the crosshairs of environmental disruption expected from climate change.
Climate change is adding a new dimension to the three-decades-old environmental justice movement.
As the effects of global warming become more evident, disaster planners and community activists are beginning to acknowledge that class disparities will come with a changing climate here in the United States, just as it will in developing countries.
A 2011 New York state report concluded that climate impacts will be "highly uneven" across households and disadvantaged populations. The poor are exposed on several counts, including higher energy costs, dependence on public transit and lack of access to health care, the researchers reported.
East Boston, for instance, is surrounded on three sides by water. A few blocks from the East Shore apartments, Lucy Acevedo wonders what she would do if an extreme storm surge swept the peninsula and cut the mass transit that is a lifeline for the community.
"I guess I would have to start walking," said Acevedo.
With climate change expected to bring higher waters and harsher winds, those already struggling will bear the brunt disproportionately, said East Boston community activist Neenah Estrella-Luna.
"Lower income people often do not have a choice as to whether they will live in an area of climate hazard," said Estrella-Luna, who teaches urban planning at Northeastern University. "They are the most vulnerable people to climate impacts. They don't have the economic conditions that allow them to be resilient to the hazards."
Acevedo, 40, who raised four children in East Boston after coming from Puerto Rico two decades ago, suffers from asthma. She wonders how much the smoky tankers that pass through the waters outside her window are polluting the air. Her neighbor, Magdalena Ayed, sees her two small children walk to elementary school past fuel storage tanks, and worries what would happen if a tank caught fire. On a recent spring day, they were both picking up empty vodka bottles and marijuana wrappers from a local park.
"The majority of people here are immigrants. They do not know how to navigate the system. They are not empowered. They don't know how to access information about health and the environment," said Ayed, 41, an Argentina-born medical interpreter who lives in subsidized housing with her husband, a taxi driver from Algeria.