Think back to Hurricane Katrina, the deadliest and most destructive Atlantic hurricane of the 2005 hurricane season. When the storms came, those who tended to be wealthier had a vehicle and means to get out of New Orleans or get to a safe place. Those who faced peril had the means and resources to rebound quicker in the aftermath.
Poorer individuals lived in communities that were some of the hardest hit during the storms. Those who faced lack of transportation or had dependents that didn’t want to leave their homes suffered greatly and many of them died, were displaced to places beyond their control or depended heavily on government aid.
From drought to flooding, from tornadoes to heavy snowstorms, environmental experts say that changes in global weather patterns, especially increases in temperature and storm activity, will continue and unfortunately African-Americans are the most vulnerable to these changes.
“Even when you consider people’s income, communities of color tend to be the ones that have a larger burden of environmental problems than similarly poor communities that are not of color,” said Danielle Deane, director of the energy and environment program at the Joint Center For Political and Economic Studies.
According to the center’s research, although African-Americans contribute 20 percent less than white households to the underlying causes of climate changes, they are more vulnerable to extreme weather that science has shown is exacerbated by climate changes, as well as to economic and social side effects of those issues.
Blacks and other people of color are also vulnerable to the risks associated with increases in energy prices.
Amy Hartsock, public information officer for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) said that in Indiana, flooding and droughts are two climate change issues likely to affect the state.
Jesse Kharbanda, the executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, added that when it comes to drought, what this means from a practical perspective is that water is going to become more scarce which will drive up the cost of utility and food prices among others.
The issue is further compounded by unemployment and underemployment rates in the Black community making it difficult to pay for these high costs.
There is, however a growing movement to address these environmental issues that are negatively affecting Black communities.
“It’s more of a concept of trying to address power imbalances, lack of political enfranchisement, and to redirect resources,” said Robert Bullard in a previous interview. He is a professor at Clark Atlanta University and is also considered the “grandfather of environmental justice.”
Deane said in order to reduce disparities, it’s going to be up to our elected officials to create policies that help all citizens.
For example, people can recycle on their own, but if there’s no system in place, efforts to reduce trash won’t be as immediate or effective.
Another example is during days of extreme heat, local governments can set up cooling centers for those who don’t have access to an air conditioner.
Kharbanda agrees and gives the example of governments cracking down on companies that violate their environmental responsibility permit.
According to IDEM’s Hartsock, to her knowledge no Indiana agency has a plan that specifically addresses the effects of flooding or drought here in Indiana. However, the IDEM and various state agencies work together to handle certain environmental concerns.
Deane also said that job growth is another way to curb injustices.
“One of the most promising areas of job growth in Indiana is clean energy technology,” said Kharbanda. “If we adopted public policy that made our state more friendly to energy efficiency investment then we’d create more jobs.”
He added that while larger organizations are able to fight injustices on a higher level, it’s going to take individuals on a grass roots level to help reduce disparities. He suggests people join a neighborhood association.
Many are looking to the church to be a positive and empowering example.
Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith, executive director of the Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis, said that in the past, the federation has helped reduce pollution in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood as well as participated in a national climate change campaign.
“Genesis says that God created the world and it was good. The Scriptures say that humans were given the privilege of having dominion over the Earth. We have the responsibility of being good stewards to God’s creation,” said Walker-Smith.
Environmental justice may seem like an insignificant and an additional disproportionality that Blacks face. Whether one looks at this issue as a Black issue or an environmental issue, people should work to make a change.
“There’s a special impact that people in low income communities can have if they’re involved in civic activity. Their interest and health are at times taken for granted. It’s important that they are sticking up for their rights to breathe clean air and drink clean water. These communities need to be more proactive.”
For more information, call the Hoosier Environmental Council at (317) 685-8800 or visit hecweb.org; the Indiana Department of Environmental Management at (317) 232-8603 or visit in.gov/idem.