Why the Black community must take action on climate change


Climate change is real. Almost all climate scientists agree that the trend of warming temperatures over the last century is related to human activity. There has been debate about whether there truly is agreement amongst scientists (as also reported in the Spokesman-Recorder in 2017), but most of that is motivated by politics. The scientific community is not arguing about this point.

One point of confusion is about some calling it “global warming” versus others calling the issue “climate change.” While these terms are often used in the same way, they do have different meanings.

“Global warming” describes how the Earth’s surface temperature is increasing due to human industrial activity, primarily burning fossil fuels such as coal or gasoline. “Climate change” includes the effect of global warming, but also many other effects, including more extreme weather events in local areas. The extreme weather events of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy are known examples. Climate change does not only mean areas will be hotter; some areas (such as Minnesota) will be even colder at times.

This issue matters to the Black community because it has and will continue to affect us more than many other communities. In the same way that unequal economic, social, housing, transportation, education and health factors have led to greater rates of chronic diseases (such as high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes) or severe COVID-19 disease in the Black community, climate change will have similar impacts.

For example, it was observed after Hurricane Katrina that emergency response for the Black communities impacted was worse than for the White communities impacted. We have seen since then that Black communities have had a much harder time recovering.

There are several factors contributing to why the Black community is more affected by climate change. Black communities have less stable housing and employment than other communities, so after a natural disaster, recovery will be harder. Also, Black communities are already more exposed to air pollution and heat waves, and both of these effects are made worse with climate change as well.

All of these factors are impacted by the fact that Black communities commonly contain or are near industrial plants and historically polluted industrial sites and are impacted by the day-to-day effects of industrial pollution. This proximity to industrial pollution is also a problem when severe events occur, especially if toxic environmental hazards are released into the community in an even less controlled fashion. Most importantly, children are the ones most affected by issues of environmental health.

Unfortunately, more wealthy communities (traditionally White) contribute more to climate change by pollution and use of resources. However, the poorer (and less commonly White) communities suffer more. When underserved areas are targeted to reduce pollution or increase greenspace, this often comes at the expense of existing community residents moving because of increased living expenses.

Some have referred to this process as “eco-gentrification” or “eco-apartheid”: providing more environmentally-friendly resources to those with privilege while those without this privilege are the ones most likely to suffer. This concern has been raised in North Minneapolis with the Upper Harbor Terminal project to redevelop the Mississippi riverfront (reported on by the Spokesman-Recorder in August 2020).

Now, with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic affecting us all, in addition to the stresses of being Black in America, we are observing increasing amounts of anxiety surrounding fear of climate change and what it may bring. This effect is being referred to as “eco-anxiety,” and it is being experienced even more widely in children, who have been raised hearing about climate change from a very early age. It is particularly for our children that we must fight to preserve our greatest resource: our environment.

The good news is that we can do more to combat the effects of climate change. Locally, we can support projects such as community gardens and tree planting, which can reduce local air and soil quality as well as reduce urban heat. Communities can support low or no-emission transportation, such as electric buses or individual electric vehicle ownership, including community charging stations.

At a wider level, individuals must vote and ensure that their politicians have their best interests in mind, including being aware of how environmental health issues such as climate change impact the Black community. It is our responsibility to take action now on climate change, if not for ourselves then for the future generations that will experience even more of these adverse effects.

Dr. Zeke McKinney grew up in and lives in Minneapolis. He primarily practices clinical occupational and environmental medicine (OEM) in St. Paul and St. Louis Park, MN, and he is one of few clinicians in Minnesota who evaluates work and community-related environmental toxicologic exposures. He is also a researcher for the HealthPartners Institute, including on a COVID-19 vaccine trial. He focuses on health equity and environmental justice for all communities.