Groundbreaking research on the intersection of climate change and segregation reveals how racist banking practices banned by Congress 52 years ago continue to shape how black and lower-income Americans experience the effects of global warming.
Among other things, researchers found that historical “redlining” of minority neighborhoods in more than 100 American cities has placed a heavier burden on residents from extreme heat than other communities, according to the findings published in the journal Climate.
Redlining, the mid-20th-century practice by banks and insurers to concentrate black and other minority homeowners within certain neighborhoods, was banned under the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But its legacy has persisted through entrenched segregation; economic inequality; lack of public services to redlined communities; and air quality deterioration from urban highways, industrial plants and landfills.
For instance, air pollution and extreme heat are killing inner-city residents at a higher rate than almost all other causes, according to experts. And as average temperatures continue to rise—contributing to what scientists call the “urban heat island effect”—death and illness from the effects of climate change are expected to rise further.
Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president for environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation and former leader of the congressional Hip Hop Caucus, said at a recent political forum that air pollution is “an epidemic” in minority communities where residents are “literally dying for a breath of fresh air.”
Many of the nation’s historically redlined districts “now contain the hottest areas” in the United States, according to data collected from 108 cities across the country by researchers at the Science Museum of Virginia and Portland State University. As a result, residents of those areas face a disproportionate risk of heat-related mortality and health impacts associated with heat and carbon pollution.
In fact, historically redlined districts are on average 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than non-redlined districts, the study shows. And in several instances, the difference in summer surface temperatures between redlined and non-redlined neighborhoods was as much as 20 F.
Those experiencing elevated temperatures face substantially higher risk of heatstroke and other heat-related illnesses, experts say, with the greatest risk to vulnerable populations whose homes lack air conditioning or adequate ventilation.
“It is sometimes a very stark divide, and there is a clear delineation” between climate risk in neighborhoods subject to redlining from the 1930s to the 1960s and those that were not, said Vivek Shandas, a study co-author and professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State in Portland, Ore.
Moreover, Shandas said, the relationship between once-redlined neighborhoods and today’s elevated climate risk “suggests a woefully negligent planning system that [benefits] hyper-privileged richer and whiter communities.” The trend persists across states and regions, according to the research.
The findings are based on analysis of temperature variations across hundreds of neighborhoods, with a focus on districts that were redlined versus those that were not redlined.
In some places, even concerted efforts to undo housing discrimination have failed to break the shackles of history, including in progressively minded cities like Portland, Denver and Minneapolis. Those three cities showed the largest heat differentials between historically redlined districts and non-redlined districts, in some cases by as much as 12.5 F.
Jeremy Hoffman, a study co-author, chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia and an affiliated environmental studies faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University, said heat-related health risk isn’t the only burden such communities face. They also may suffer from higher energy bills, limited access to green space and limited job opportunities associated with some urban neighborhoods.
That stands in contrast to more affluent and historically white neighborhoods where “decades of intentional investment in parks, green spaces, trees, transportation and housing policies” provide “cooling services.”
“As climate change brings hotter, more frequent and longer heat waves, the same historically underserved neighborhoods—often where lower-income households and communities of color still live—will, as a result, face the greatest impact,” Shandas said.
The findings build on previous research that’s shown neighborhoods with less green space—such as in inner cities—are hotter on average than those with more vegetation. The same research noted that lower-income households and minorities tend to live in such areas, commonly known as urban heat islands.
Shandas said his research group and partner organizations have been working since 2017 to better understand how redlining and other discriminatory policies have trapped minority and low-income people in environmentally disadvantaged areas. “This isn’t just about historical patterns,” he said. “This is about what’s coming [with climate change], and the implications it will have on adaptation" in American cities.
The issue has spilled over into presidential politics, where several Democratic candidates have made climate change impacts on urban, minority and low-income communities a centerpiece of their environmental platforms.
At a recent environmental justice forum in South Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) cited redlining as one of the foundational reasons minority and low-income communities have been saddled with persistent environmental problems. She pledged to address climate change under a $3 trillion federal effort, with one-third of that spending going to communities affected by environmental injustices (Greenwire, Nov. 11, 2019).
“The role of the federal government is as a country we leave no community behind,” Warren told an audience at South Carolina State University, a historically black institution in Orangeburg.
“It should be no surprise to you that for generations, the federal government subsidized the purchase of housing for white people and discriminated against the purchase of housing for black people. It created a black-white wealth gap that continues even to this day because of the generational effects as of what’s happened in these communities.”
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.