Researchers have long noted disparities in pollution impacts: climate change hits people of color the hardest.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto met with Chispa Nevada and activists this week to hear from, and highlight, voices who have traditionally been left behind in climate change politics and policy.
The socioeconomically disproportionate impacts of pollution have driven environmental justice campaigns for recognition, protections, and interventions in areas affected by pollution.
Ample research has demonstrated that minorities, on average, are subjected to poorer air quality than white Americans. People of color are still far more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air than white people across the U.S., according to the Environmental Protections Agency’s National Center for Environmental Assessment. According to the study’s authors, “results at national, state, and county scales all indicate that non-Whites tend to be burdened disproportionately to Whites.”
During this week’s discussion with Cortez Masto, Emily Zamora, a mother of a four-year-old boy living in North Las Vegas – a city with a high rate of poverty and high concentration of minority communities – held up a red and white plastic inhaler.
“I just want to show you what it’s like to have a kid with severe asthma each and every day,” she said, her voice cracking. “Something that fails a lot in the conversation of environmental justice is the intersection with health care.”
In the last two years she said her son has been in the hospital for asthma complications three times, the last one hospitalizing him for a whole week.
“His last attack he started off with a cough and that lead to him going into respiratory failure and going into cardiac arrest,” said Zamora, who also volunteers with Chispa.
She told Cortez Masto the lower quality of air in communities of color make her fear for the safety of her son. Once he starts pre-k, putting him in a school bus is one of her biggest fears, she said, noting the pollution produced by diesel fuel school buses.
According to Chispa Nevada there are approximately 181,000 students in Nevada who ride school buses in over 17 school districts. Chispa estimates that over half of those children are Latino or African-American. More than 1 in 12 children in Nevada suffer from asthma, and that number is higher in lower income urban neighborhoods.
Pollution from school buses, at least, is an issue that has even been taken up by the Nevada Legislature. On Tuesday, SB299, which makes up to $15 million available for school districts to purchase electric school buses, was unanimously supported by the Nevada Senate with a 21-0 vote.
“I don’t want to put him in a situation where he’s going to have more attacks,” Zamora said.
Dr. Mary House, who leads Mountaintop Faith Ministries and is a member of the Faith Organizing Alliance, said she hears how environmental issues and air quality affects her congregation and their families.
“Because of poverty, especially in our communities, our children are suffering,” House said. “Black children are two times more likely to have asthma than white kids.”
“In the African-American community we sometimes feel like we don’t exist” when it comes to environmental issues, House said, noting that there is little outreach in her community on the environmental issues that affect them.
“We need to be included in the steps,” House said.
Kimberly Estrada, a student at Nevada State, said children in her own family who face the most health issues are the ones living in low-income communities with dense housing near major roads and highways. Poorer neighborhoods are often sited closer to factories or highways, both of which contribute significantly to pollution levels.
In a study published in Environmental Research Letter, researchers determined that polluters— factories, warehouse and other facilities using toxic substances — were overwhelmingly located near minority or poor communities.
Communities she grew up in are often ignored when investing in new clean energy technology, said Estrada.
“When we talk about issues on clean air and clean energy, we need to think of them as opportunities, and make sure those opportunities go to people who are affected the most,” Estrada said, “including making sure we are encouraging people in low-income neighborhoods to be a part of the solution, like community solar panels.”
Barbra Hartzell, who is of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe of Lake Havasu, said that for the longest time indigenous communities were not included in the conversation on environmental justice, and were largely sidelined by environmental agencies, large environmental organizations, and academics.
“We’ve done so much damage to the earth and now here we are,” Hartzell said. “It’s time to embrace our indigenous communities who are the stewards of this land. This is where they came from. If anyone knows how to help mend this broken road it is our elders and it is our youth.”
“The land is our mother. You respect her like your mother,” Hartzell said.
Cortez Masto said the issues and points underscore why front line communities must be included in discussions on the environment, and highlighted her new appointment to the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis.
“At the end of the day this is probably the most important issue for all of us and the future of this planet,” Cortez Masto said. “There’s no planet B. We need to get it right.”
It’s here now
The first sentence of last year’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment that “The impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country.”
Climate change will make Nevada more expensive and less habitable, according to some of the assessment, which also found that low-income people are the ones being hit the hardest by climate change.
“Impacts within and across regions will not be distributed equally,” the report states. “People who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts.”
In hot, desert areas like Southern Nevada, even hotter temperatures will mean increased air conditioning, pressuring demands on the energy infrastructure that can lead not only to higher utility bills but power outages and blackouts. Researchers reported earlier this month that Las Vegas is getting hotter faster than any other city in the nation.
More than 90 percent of Nevadans live in urban areas. “Urban populations experiencing socioeconomic inequality or health problems have greater exposure and susceptibility to climate change,” according to the Climate Assessment.
People without access to housing with sufficient insulation and air conditioning (for example, renters and the homeless) have greater exposure to heat stress, according to the report. Not only that but extreme weather can disrupt the public transportation network which would disproportionately affect low-income people, older adults, people with limited English proficiency, and other vulnerable urban populations.
“These changes strain household budgets, increase people’s exposure to heat, and limit the delivery of medical and social services,” the Climate Assessment explained.
Bringing forward legislature to combat climate change and avoid more damage to communities of color and low-income communities must be a top priority for the Senate, said Cortez Masto, calling for the development and investment of new technology to reduce the country’s carbon footprint including electric cars, smart communities, and other innovations.
“If we are not planning strategically and preparing” for the strains climate change will put on Nevada infrastructure and communities, said Cortez Masto, “we are going to be caught off guard when it comes, and many of our communities are going to be damaged.”