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3. Getting Grounded:

Pursuing Justice in the Age of Global Warming

Urban development that places health equity as a central policy goal will improve health, reduce social inequity and support communities to cope with, and avert further, global environmental change.

Global Research Network on
Urban Health Equity

In the previous section of this toolkit, we talked about how public transportation and land use policies have historically reinforced, racial, economic, and environmental and health inequities between population groups in US metropolitan regions. Our historic patterns of investment in automobiles, freeways and suburban sprawl have not only created burdens for communities of color and others left behind by the exploding metropolis during the past half century.  But, scientists say, they have been also contributing to the worldwide phenomenon of global warming.


Getting Grounded

By getting grounded we mean creating a shared foundation for learning and action during this period of rapid transition from a post industrial society increasingly challenged by global warming. All segments of the society have a stake in the outcome of this transition.  The stakes are high for vulnerable communities. They have a great deal to lose, if the shift to so-called sustainable patterns is also a to a new generation of policies and practices that reinforce racial and economic segregation.

As we seek to make a transition to a more sustainable society in the Age of Global Warming, we must to continue to pursue goals of social justice and health equity in California and the nation.


Global Warming is Real

Global warming is real. It is bad for people, bad for the most vulnerable populations, and bad for health equity. All segments of society must act now to prevent, mitigate threats of global warming to the whole society and find the life support system of the planet. We must also find new ways to adapt to the coming realities of climate change.  By creating greater capacity for all groups to respond to the impacts of global warming transportation and land use strategies can play an important role in helping society meet these challenges.

According to scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, unequivocal evidence that global warming is happening is present in at least six global trends that are documented in climate models:  extreme heat, floods & droughts, melting polar caps and glaciers, rising ocean waters, hurricanes and other storms, and ecosystem and agricultural changes. For example, in n The Weather of the Future, Heidi Cullen explains, “the European heat wave of 2003, an extreme weather event that killed more than 35,000 people, offers the best example of how climate models can help us see global warming embedded within our weather. Public health officials were shocked at the scale of the human casualties caused by the heat…The summer of 2003 has been described as the biggest natural disaster in Europe on record…According to [the latest climate models], by the 2040s such summers will be happening every other year.” Another striking example within the United States is Hurricane Katrina. Cullen goes on to explain “because global warming results in warmer oceans, most experts on hurricanes agree that this warming of the ocean waters will make hurricanes more powerful.”


Global Warming is Bad for Vulnerable Populations, and Bad for Health Equity.

The Age Of Global Warming is a stage in the evolution of human development on a planetary scale.  In this stage, the life support system of the planet is severely threatened.   Constraints and opportunities of all societies will be radically shaped by the realities of climate change.   There are two basic reasons why social justice advocates should care about this challenge: (1) the threats of global warming will fall most heavily on poor and vulnerable human populations;  (2) The silver lining is that the challenge of climate change may offer new opportunities for achieving social justice outcomes.

Global warming affects people everywhere in critical ways: the availability of clean water, the ability to grow enough food, the spread of infectious diseases, the occurrence of extreme weather events, the damage to property and more.  Unfortunately, the people most directly affected by this environmental crisis are the least equipped to respond. They are poor and often illiterate. “Over the next 50 years,” says one report by Friends of the Earth,  “poor countries will experience more flooding, declining food production, more disease and the deterioration or extinction of entire ecosystems on which many of the world’s poorest people depend.”

All members of society should equitably share the burdens, and have access to the opportunities created in making the transition to a world of reduced green house gas emissions.  A high priority in making this transition is protecting the most vulnerable populations.   Currently, those least responsible for causing global warming are suffering the most from its consequences.   A principle of fairness suggests that those most responsible for causing CO2 emissions, have the greatest responsibility for reducing the damages to affected human communities and to the planet’s life support system, The principle of justice does not suggest that the poor should seek to pollute as much as the rich.   Rather as they seek to overcome inequities, they should also pursue a path toward greater sustainability and resilience for themselves and the human community as a whole.

Global Warming places disproportionately negative impacts on poor and marginalized communities in the United States as well.   According to the National Hispanic Environmental Council, Latinos have an increased risk of developing acute and chronic illnesses like asthma and other respiratory and pulmonary disease from exposure to air pollution because a disproportionate number of Latinos live in areas failing to meet one or more federal standards for clean air.

The Joint Center on Policy and Economic Studies reports  “African Americans disproportionately bear the substantial public health burden caused by climate change. The primary effect of changing weather patterns on health is likely to be an increase in the prevalence of heat-related deaths. Secondary health effects are expected to include increased asthma and cancer deaths and related illnesses from air pollution, as well as changes in the range of communicable diseases, and energy associated health problems. Globally, climate change already causes an estimated 160,000 deaths annually, and the number will worsen as the rate of change increases over the coming decades.”

Historic patterns of racial segregation is connected to sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions. Racialization of space and mobility has been a significant cause of climate change because it requires vast amounts if fossil fuels while devouring inordinate amounts of land.   Greenhouse gases began to rapidly rise in the decades after WWII as whites abandoned the core cities and moved to the suburbs. Suburbanization reproduced new forms, a privilege while simultaneously  increasing auto dependency necessitating increased vehicular travel and fossil fuel consumption


Resilient Communities:

Transportation and land use policies that seek to reduce CO2, emissions must simultaneously and explicitly reduce the climate related health risks for most vulnerable human populations.  However, as we invest in new patterns of sustainable and healthy communities, we must also invest in resilient communities, communities that, by design, have the capacity to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. There is a need for increased investment in selected public health functions that will improve health now, and reduce future vulnerability to climate change. Included in this category are policies that lead to reduction of concentrations of poverty, and creating more housing and transportation choices for the most vulnerable populations.

Decreasing health inequities, and promoting resilience of California’s most vulnerable populations should be explicit performance standards for implementation of California’s Sustainable Communities & Climate Protection Act (SB 375).

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