I grew up in Florida, wading through the sawgrass of the Everglades and lounging on the beaches of Fort Lauderdale. I worked for the Town Hall of my Everglades border city, Davie, and spent many early rising weekends traveling to the coast for beach cleanups, service events, and school board meetings. I love my state. I know it to be a place as rich in diversity as it is in alligator sightings and gorgeous beaches. And yet, cities and towns across Florida have been swept up in protests against police brutality this summer following the killing of George Floyd. In many parts of the country, the threat of climate change will become just as present for many vulnerable communities; in Florida, it already is.
The climate crisis is not color blind. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards can’t judge someone’s race; it is the way official policies are structured that makes climate change affect people of color so disproportionately. Redlining policies made it impossible for Black people to be granted the financial support needed to improve properties, leading these communities without the infrastructure to perform proper draining functions. To make matters worse, minority residences are more likely to be located near toxic environmental polluters, compounding the damage done when these homes are harmed by storms. Wood pellet production facilities, coal and natural gas plants are disproportionately built in communities with substantial non-white populations. As storms get worse, Black and Latinx people consistently face the full force without the proper infrastructure to combat it.
As our world gets warmer, so do the disasters we endure. In my town, one prone to a barrage of hurricanes every summer, warmer climates have meant “more destructive and costly” storms as sea levels rise and oceans hold more heat. Although increasing storm intensity touches everyone, the way it affects poorer minority communities and affluent neighborhoods is simply not the same. Climate change has always been a racial and justice issue.
A common joke each hurricane season is the tenacity and hardheadedness of Floridians. Our own stereotype of not evacuating when told to, hosting hurricane parties, and surfing during storm surges certainly holds true in some areas. But acknowledging that the ability to evacuate is a privilege rather than a guarantee is critical. With people of color more likely to lack the financial resources to evacuate, it’s no surprise their communities often bear the highest human cost.
Efforts such as federally-backed flood insurance exist in order to mitigate the problems for people living in at-risk locations; yet the National Flood Insurance Program disproportionately punishes low income communities in “undesirable” locations with incredibly high premiums — even though most of these neighborhoods were built in flood-prone locations because of racist real estate policies. Federal buyouts of these at-risk homes have started to take hold, with more than 43,000 homes sold to the government voluntarily since 1989. But this effort to reduce the number of people in harm’s way has taken root predominantly in counties with higher incomes. Federal aid following disasters is primarily granted to white communities.
I love my state. I love the daily 3 p.m. torrential showers. I love the Everglades. I love the people that live here. But no matter how much I love Florida, I know that its enacted policies make it difficult to treat everyone equally. As climate change intensifies, the communities around mine become more and more at risk. From initial redlining policies making people of color cluster in risky under-funded areas, to flood insurance bail-outs being denied for people in these at-risk neighborhoods, to ineffective federal aid, natural disasters may not see color, but our policies sure do.
Addressing police brutality is imperative to ensuring a more just society. But we must also recognize that minority and vulnerable groups have already borne the brunt of the climate crisis. We must recognize that addressing the injustices from climate change is also critical to the work of combating systemic racism in America.
Andrei Santos is the RCC Stanback Engagement Intern. He is a rising sophomore at Duke University and plans to major in Environmental Science and Public Policy. [email protected]
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