Missing the Deadline: Address Climate Change Now; People of Color Are Feeling the Impact

by Natalie Barry

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report on October 6, and it’s far more dramatic than any that came before it. It offers a hard deadline for climate action; just 12 years. It recognizes that climate change is already happening, and that we are currently dealing with just the tip of the iceberg of what’s ahead.

The report presents some of the most dangerous consequences yet to come, including increasingly frequent, intense, and fatal climate disasters. It shows that the impact of climate disasters and the risk associated with pollution and climate change threats “fall disproportionately on the poor.” While it offers a compelling argument for “unprecedented climate action,” it doesn’t critically engage localized solutions on how to mitigate the effects of climate change as they come hurling at us in full speed in 2018.

The IPCC Special Report spends some time delineating all of the climate related catastrophes that our world is already experiencing at an alarming rate; from record-breaking heat waves, storms, and floods, to lasting droughts and famines. It goes on to present a 1.5 degree celsius warming limit that we can’t exceed in the next 12 years. In order to stay below that limit, we have to cut carbon emission in half by 2030, and completely by 2050. What we’ve already seen in the last 10 years alone, the most fatal and costly storms. If we don’t successfully cut carbon emissions in the next 12 years and we exceed the new limit of 1.5 degree Celsius, the global devastation will be “unprecedented”.

The report is overwhelming and scary, but what are the current, local implications of the continued polluting? It can be harder to see the compounding effects of climate change with only just the IPCC’s globally oriented climate research and theoretical deadlines, instead of concrete consequences of polluting that are already affecting communities across the nation.

Earlier this year the University of Washington published a report called An Unfair Share; Exploring the Disproportionate Risks from Climate Change in Washington State Communities. The report delves into all the factors that contribute to an individual’s risk from climate change, the most significant one being their place of residence. Several Washington state tribal communities have identified flooding as a serious concern, as flooding would put them at a much higher risk to public transportation failures and inaccessible critical health services. Flooding also causes widespread property damage, which results in a number of consequences including huge economic setbacks, degradation of property value, evacuation, and/or significant health threats in the form of toxic mold and contaminated water supplies. Folks living in what is known as the wildland-urban interface (of which there are now at least 900,000 homes in Washington alone) are exposed to much higher risks of wildfires and floods. People living in urban centers that can’t afford to breath filtered air, secure affordable healthcare to fight asthma, or fight food insecurity face a bigger threat as well.

More often than not, the places that are plagued with the vast majority of these issues are occupied by low income communities and communities of color, primarily due to our nation’s history of relegating Black and Brown people to such areas.

More economic mobility and less exposure to the pollution that we can already see causing problems, translates directly to the ability to adapt successfully to the changing climate. Despite certain Seattleites and Washingtonians thinking that Seattle might be well situated for adapting to climate change because of our more “liberal” political agenda, we are not at all immune to increasingly dangerous environmental problems, poverty, or racial and ethnic socioeconomic disparities caused by widespread institutionalized racism.

Got Green, a hyperlocal community organizing venture based out of South Seattle, is familiar with the issues that members of their communities are facing. They prioritize food justice, fighting for climate justice, and eradicating poverty in communities of color. Got Green Climate Justice Organizer Hodan Hassan describes climate change as a “threat multiplier” when it comes to the amount of risk that communities face while our world continues to heat up.

A study conducted by Got Green and Puget Sound Sage in 2016, found that many residents shared health concerns among their communities. Many of these concerns are directly correlated with current pollution, and all of them vulnerable to being intensified and exacerbated as the climate changes.

Hodan stressed the severity of air quality pollution from diesel trucks driving through their neighborhoods, and children with increasingly bad asthma from the smog. She discussed food insecurity and rising utility bills. She mentioned heat waves and the increasing danger of hotter summers in places without AC, especially for people who are unhoused. She spoke about living on and around “superfund” sites, which are literal toxic waste dumps around the entire nation caused by discarded chemical pollutants.

To meet the target that the IPCC offers us, we must completely abandon fossil fuels before 2050. One of the primary obstacles to achieving this however, is that we will have to force the fossil fuel industry to leave behind almost $10 trillion in capital. In order for climate change to be addressed appropriately and effectively, both political and economic power need to be significantly shifted away from fossil fuel companies and into clean energy solutions. Initiative 1631 proves to be the piece of legislation that could do just that, while setting an example for the nation of how to begin adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Initiative 1631 is a carbon fee on the state’s largest polluters, like the oil industry and utilities that have not switched over to clean energy. The fee would be invested in clean energy infrastructure, training for clean energy jobs, reforestation efforts across the state. It’s environmentally goal oriented instead of profit oriented, which is an important piece of the legislation given our new 12 year deadline of cutting CO2 emissions in half. The initiative is powerful because it is led and supported by over 250 organizations including scientists, environmental and clean-energy advocates, working families, communities of color, health professionals, businesses, faith leaders, and tribal nations. The contrast between what the communities of Washington want and what the oil companies want is stark, and the difference in consequences really does come down to life or death.

It is imperative that 1631 passes on November 6, and when it does the hope is that it can serve as an example for future legislation across the country. The IPCC report sends a clear  message that our economy needs to move away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy immediately if we intend to save lives as the effects of climate change intensify.

The initiative appears to be the perfect first step in knocking big oil off its polluting pedestal while reinvesting in alternative energy solutions. Passing 1631 is an excellent start in the pursuit of solving climate change, but Hassan of Got Green encourages that us to avoid complacency after the midterm elections.

Perhaps one of the most crucial questions moving past the midterm elections then, is how to best utilize the momentum from 1631. How can collaboration like this happen again and again to advance progressive legislation that has the potential of adjusting power dynamics in our favor?