Thursday, July 11, 2019

It is the poor who suffer

In many parts of the world the effects of climate change are already catastrophic. Those who stand to gain the most from sweeping environmental protections are the marginalized people corporations assume can be put in toxic environments without fear of backlash.

Recently in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India, more than 40 people were killed by a severe heat wave in just one day.

A study by UNICEF suggests that “in the next decade, 175 million children will be hit by climate-related disasters in South Asia and Africa alone.”

Miami’s steady sinking is depleting useable drinking water at an alarming rate.

Global warming has created the warmest climate of the past 11,700 years, as climate scientist, Columbia University's James Hansen, notes. US losses from major climate-related events, those with a cost of $1 billion or above, averaged an astounding $150 billion per year in 2016-2018. Five large economies are responsible for more than half of the world's emissions: China, India, Japan, Russia, and the US. The world's fate lies in their—our—hands. Of these five, the US has by far the highest emissions per person, with China's per capita emissions, for example, less than half of the US level.

85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans — aptly nicknamed Cancer Alley — is a stark example. Thanks to petrochemical pollution there, Louisiana at one point suffered the second-highest death rate from cancer in the United States, with some localities near chemical plants getting cancer from air pollution at 700 times the national average.

This is no accident: Corporations deliberately target places like Cancer Alley because they’re home to socially and economically disadvantaged people whom the corporations assume can’t fight back. 

There’s even a name for it: “least resistant personality profiles.” Sociologist Arlie Hochschild discovered this term in a 1984 study done by a consulting firm to determine where a waste board could build a plant without local communities complaining. According to the study, the people least likely to protest having their health put at risk were typically “longtime residents of small towns in the South or Midwest, high school educated only, Catholic, uninvolved in social issues, and without a history of activism, involved in mining, farming, ranching, conservative, Republican, advocates of the free market.” It does a lot to explain why poor communities face the worst consequences of climate change and pollution. These inequities cut across racial lines: As Hochschild’s study shows, “least resistant personalities” include small town, working-class white communities in the South and Midwest, as well as poor black people in places like Cancer Alley.

After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, the federal government did next to nothing. The comparison between the responses to 9/11 and Hurricane Maria — whose death tolls were almost exactly the same — highlights just how overlooked the suffering caused to marginalized communities by climate change is.

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