By Peter White

NASHVLLE, TN — Sandy Close, executive director of Ethnic Media Services in San Francisco, asked Dr. Robert Bullard about the weather in Houston last week. He ticked off half a dozen extreme weather events that hit the Gulf Coast hard and left widespread flooding and devastation in their wake. Disasters and pollution pack a powerful double punch.

“The South is the same area that gave us slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and fighting Civil Rights. And it’s fighting environmental justice,” Dr. Robert Bullard said. He teaches at Texas Southern University in Houston.

“Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution,” Bullard said. He is Distinguished Professor or Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. The author of 18 books, Bullard is known as the “Father of Environmental Justice”. 

“If you look at COVID-19 it’s like a heat-seeking missile that targets vulnerable populations in terms of health but also targeting the most environmentally sensitive populations,” he said. 

Bullard said America is segregated along racial lines and so is pollution. “People of color breathe 38% more polluted air than whites,” he said.  And air pollution causes 200,000 premature deaths each year. 

“African Americans are three times more likely than whites to die from asthma. Black children are 10 times more likely to die from asthma than white children,” he said. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides disaster relief but it is not colorblind.  

“Long before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast people of color knew and learned the hard way that waiting for the government can be hazardous to your health,” Bullard said. 

For example, FEMA”s COVID-19 guidance is to stay put but if you live in a one-story house and you are under six feet of water, Bullard said you are either “sheltering in place” waiting to get rescued or you drown.

He said there are communities dealing with the double burden of COVID-19 guidelines and flooding right now. Lake Charles, Louisiana, Port Arthur, Texas, Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida are among them.

“All communities are not created equal and communities that are on the wrong side of the levee, or basically the low-lying areas, they are least protected by law,” he said.

Houston is a good example of how that happens. Tropical Storm Imelda dropped 40 inches of rain on Houston in September 2019. Bullard called it a flood of biblical proportions. The damage was extensive in East Houston and on the west side.  

The east side is closer to the water and much of it lies in the floodplain. The west side is the richer part of town, has better storm drainage and has had better flood protection for decades. 

Bullard said FEMA does a cost benefit analysis before cutting relief checks and an $800,000 home on the west side will get priority over the $80,000 home on the east side. “You send those dollars equally, you keep reproducing that inequality,” he said.  The solution is to use an equity lens to talk about damages that were done 100 years ago in terms of spending on one side of Houston to shore it up.”

Bullard looked at severe weather events in the last couple of decades and tracked the federal relief.  “Looking at $10 billion in damages, white communities, after recovery dollars were spent, were $126,000 better off. Communities of color on average lost about $29,000.

If we do nothing to change climate policy the country will see a 6% drop in GDP,” Bullard said. But the South will experience a 20% drop in GDP. “It is the poorest part of the country and the least likely to move forward with progressive policies on energy, climate change, and civil rights. He said the political climate in the South is generally very anti-environment and climate change is going to widen the economic gap. 

California is having the worst fire season on record.  The cause is drier forests caused by fewer Spring storms that build up a snowpack in the mountains which melt over the Summer and fill reservoirs with a precious resource people can no longer take for granted. 

“We manage those dams in CA for flood control earlier in the season and later in the spring we manage them for water supply,” said Dr. Anthony Westerling.

“If you’re not engaged with the science, you’re not engaged with reality,” Dr. Anthony Westerling said. He is a professor at UC Merced in California and an expert on wildfires.

He is Professor of Management of Complex Systems at University of California, Merced. 

”Because we’re getting more rain and less snow and warmer temperatures in the Spring, we’re getting snow runoff earlier in the year and now we have a conflict in how we mange those dams,” he said. 

Westerling said climate change is the primary driver of longer hotter fire seasons. He simulated fires around the state and projected this year’s fire season would be happening with increasing frequency. “Thirty years from now, this would be a very common event,” he said. “This is not a world we want to be in where this is regularly occurring.” 

“Now our mountain forests will dry out sooner in the year and that can move the fire season much earlier and we have a water source problem as well.” In short, climate change is bringing too much water to the Gulf coast and not enough to California and Oregon.  

Dr. Rajendra Shende said the richest countries that pollute the most should pay developing countries for climate disasters and they should reduce their carbon emissions to zero in the next ten years or the planet will cook. 

Shende and a handful of scientists working with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007.  But since then, Shende said not enough progress has been made to slow climate change.

China has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060. Finland, Denmark and Sweden are among the best performers when it comes to achieving carbon neutrality, according to the World Economic Forum. Sixty-seven countries and eight states have set carbon neutrality goals. 

Although 190 of 197 countries have signed the Paris Climate Agreement, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate accord in June 2017.

“Those who consume the most and
polluted should now pay for those who did
not consume and did not pollute,”
Dr. Rajendra Shende said. He is former director of the United Nations Environmental Program and shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 with Al Gore. He lives on India’s west coast.

 Shende thinks if Trump wins in November, he might change his mind when he realizes his businesses and his friends will not prosper if they keep thumbing their noses about reducing carbon emissions. 

He said if the international community starts talking about Trump’s obsession with making good deals, Trump might realize his businesses will suffer if the U.S. doesn’t rejoin the climate accord “whereas all other countries are in, then his businesses will be outside. Then he will not have any advantage of good technology development taking place elsewhere,” Shende said.

If Trump loses, Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.

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