Note: This paper on climate injustice was presented by my good friend, Steve Pardini at the Global Mennonite Peacebuilding Conference in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Dr. Pardini holds a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Iowa State University. Steve retired after 37 years as a material scientist and enrolled in Eastern Mennonite Seminary, where he earned a Master of Divinity degree. He now works on developing curriculum for adult Christian education. My thanks to Steve for agreeing to post his excellent paper here. -CKJ

Anthropogenic climate change has impacted the earth’s ecosystems, human health, and economies. The poor and marginalized, who contribute the least to ecological destruction, are often the ones most affected by it and have the fewest resources to deal with its consequences. In this talk, some studies will be presented that quantify how the people of low wealth and income and the marginalized are disproportionately affected by the energy industry and climate disasters. This talk explores the consequences of climate change and presents the economic and ethical implications.

Coal-fired power plants emit ozone, heavy metals, greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, and fine particle pollution (SO2, NOx) that causes acid rain and respiratory illnesses. Fine-particle pollutants (PM2.5, <2.5 μm) emitted from coal-fired power plants are breathed in through the lungs, enter the bloodstream, and are transported to vital organs. PM2.5 pollution levels have been shown to cause premature death and are correlated to heart attacks, respiratory illnesses, hospitalizations, and lost workdays. PM2.5 pollution contributes to climate change and is the 6th highest risk factor for early death globally, claiming 4.1 million lives annually (according to the Health Effects Institute and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease Project.)[1]

In 2005, the EPA issued rules to reduce PM2.5 pollution from coal-fired power plants in the U.S. The energy industry brought lawsuits against the rule changes. The rule changes were struck down in 2008 for failing to conform to the Clean Air Act. In 2010, the Clean Air Task Force commissioned a study by Abt Associates on the health effects and death rates attributed to PM2.5 pollutants.[2] This study compared EPA power plant emission data with epidemiological studies to estimate the correlation between PM2.5 emission levels and health outcomes. Prior, large-scale investigations had documented a “direct link between power plant emissions and human health.”[3]

The Abt Associates study compared favorably with EPA studies and found that using scrubbers could provide a 50% reduction in PM2.5 emission levels from coal-fired power plants. The estimated benefit from using scrubber technology was a reduction in the annual death rate from ~24,000 to ~13,000, a reduction in the number of heart attacks from ~38,000 to ~20,000 per year, and hospitalizations reduced from ~22,000 to ~10,000. These health improvements would deliver an estimated $100B in annual cost savings.[4] Many power plants oppose the installation of scrubber technologies because they are too costly to operate. Still, the health cost savings from the PM2.5 emission reductions would help to offset the cost of running scrubbers on power plants.

“Deaths and illnesses [from PM2.5 emissions] are major examples of coal’s external costs, i.e., uncompensated harms inflicted on the public at large.”[5] This burden is not distributed evenly across the population. Adverse impacts are especially severe for the elderly, children, and those with respiratory disease.[6]

In addition, low-income and minority populations are disproportionately impacted by the pollution from coal-fired power plants. Neighborhoods near power plants have lower home values. Power companies avoid locating power plants upwind of affluent communities.[7] The majority of people living within 3 miles of the “dirtiest” coal-fired power plants are people of color. “Minority groups… living downwind of [coal-fired] power plants are disproportionately exposed to the health risks and costs of fine-particle pollution.”[8]

Next, we look at the impact of extreme weather. One tangible consequence of climate change is the forced displacement of people due to droughts, wildfires, sea-level rise, flooding, and hurricanes. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, and the associated costs are increasing. Climate scientists have shown that as atmospheric greenhouse gas levels continue to rise, so will the frequency and severity of natural disasters (floods, winter storms, tornados, hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires). The human and economic toll of extreme weather events has increased as well, having a remarkable impact on people’s livelihoods, causing large numbers of fatalities, destruction of homes, and damaging infrastructure.[9]

Two case studies will be reported next: the impact of Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane, on the Houston area and Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane, on the New Orleans area.

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey caused severe flooding in Houston and surrounding areas, displacing more than 30,000 people. High and low-income houses were affected by the flooding. According to the Brookings Institution report, the costs of Hurricane Harvey were “not evenly distributed.” Hurricane Harvey greatly impacted low-income and minority communities, and they struggled more to recover.[10]

The Brookings Institution report identified factors influencing economic outcome disparity post-Harvey. First, affordable, low-income housing was concentrated in areas of Houston prone to floods with substandard flood prevention measures. This factor increased the likelihood of flooding and the magnitude of the impact associated with storm-related flooding. The Brookings report went on to say, “Low-income and minority families are more likely to live closer to noxious industrial facilities and thus are more at-risk to chemical spills and toxic leaks resulting from storm damage.”[11] Wealthier neighborhoods in Houston were less likely to be severely impacted by storm flooding.

Second, low-income families had fewer financial resources to recover from home damage caused by flooding. Flood insurance costs have risen, and many cannot afford this coverage. Only “17% of homeowners”[12] living in the Houston area affected by Hurricane Harvey had flood insurance. The insurance policies held by wealthier households covered repair costs and the replacement of personal belongings. Those who did not have flood insurance had to rely upon “charity, government aid, and grants from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”[13] The FEMA grants were difficult to get and capped well below the costs of home repair and replacement of personal belongings. Even if people could rebuild, their home value decreased since it was in a flood zone, resulting in a long-term financial impact—loss of wealth. Along with the loss of wealth came lower credit scores and greater difficulty securing low-interest-rate loans.

In 2005, hurricane Katrina directly hit New Orleans; roughly 80 percent of the city was flooded, and “evacuation rates did not vary greatly across demographic groups.”[14] Return rates were significantly affected by demographic groups. Census data from 2015 indicated that the Garden district (89.2% white, with an average income of $125,000) had fully repopulated to the pre-Katrina levels. The Lower Ninth Ward (98.3% African American, with an average income of $38,000) had only 9.9% of its population return.[15]

Factors influencing post-Katrina return rates were evaluated for the Garden District versus the Lower Ninth Ward. New Orleans’ post-civil-war, racially discriminatory housing practices “concentrated [African American] populations in ecologically vulnerable zones… African Americans were redlined into low-lying land.”[16] In the 1900s, the US Army Corps of Engineers implemented flood protection programs based on home values. They provided better flood protection infrastructure for predominantly white districts with high home values. Higher-income white homeowners could afford flood insurance which greatly facilitated recovery and return, while lower-income Black residents could not afford flood insurance. The historical socioeconomic inequities of redlining, infrastructure, and flood insurance contributed significantly to long-term environmental displacement. “Marginalized groups had a greater exposure to the hurricane and less access to economic relief… after the hurricane.”[17]

In this study of Hurricane Katrina, environmental displacement was identified as a socioeconomic problem. “Environmental displacement affects vulnerable populations disproportionately.”[18] Marginalized people are more vulnerable to the long-term effects of displacement than wealthy people. Harvey worsened socioeconomic disparities.[19] The poor groups suffered a greater economic impact and had more significant barriers to recovery versus more affluent groups.

These studies show the impact of power-plant emissions and severe weather events. The elderly, children, and people with respiratory illnesses are most vulnerable to PM2.5 pollution from coal-fired power plants. Minority communities have the highest exposure to PM2.5 pollution. Racially discriminatory housing policies, inadequate flood and chemical spill protection, and unaffordable flood insurance left low-income neighborhoods more likely to be flooded, with the fewest economic resources to recover from the flood damage, and the most significant long-term negative impacts on wealth and livelihood.

The climate change issue has been politicized. Many in the U.S. claim the economy is of much greater importance than the environment. They contend that it is impossible to have a robust economy, strategic energy independence, and clean, renewable energy. Many maintain that these climate actions would harm economic prosperity and require burdensome personal sacrifice. Many downplay the severity of the damage caused by climate change, ignore peer-reviewed findings from verifiable data, and promote pseudoscience and fake experts to discredit actual experts.

The U.S. culture wars and political divide have helped shape people’s attitudes toward climate change. Factors influencing people’s risk assessment due to climate change and the perceived probability of occurrence have been studied. According to Klein, Yale researchers have shown that an individual’s cultural point of view, informed by their ideological stance, predicts one’s assessment of the risk and probability of occurrence of climate change more than any other factor.[20] Klein reports that researchers determined that 69% of people with “strong ‘egalitarian’ and ‘communitarian’ worldviews” characterized by concerns for “social justice” and “suspicion about corporate power” accept the scientific findings on climate change.[21] Alternatively, 89% of people with “strong ‘hierarchical’ and ‘individualistic’ world views” characterized by “support for the industry” and disdain for “government assistance for the poor” reject the scientific conclusions on climate change.[22]

These cultural points of view, informed by one’s ideological stance, are often used to defend one’s religious understanding, which informs a person’s bias on the causes and consequences of climate change. Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian climate scientist, points out that due to the “influence of culture and religion,” more than two-thirds of white evangelical Christians in the United States maintain that climate change is not human-caused.[23] Many evangelical Christians dismiss the threat of climate change, oppose climate action, and argue for economic growth based on believing that God is in control. According to Wiebe, some Christians believe that environmental outcomes are “not humanly determined and therefore not up for debate.”[24] Humans are to trust in God’s care and provision. God’s care for the earth is greater than anything humans can do to destroy it. Humans are to worship God, not creation. God gives humans dominion over the earth, which means the earth is for human use. In addition, many Christians are driven by political partisanship; accepting the populist frames of reference, they reject climate science.

Hayhoe says, “The poorest and most vulnerable will be most affected by climate change. That is why Christians are called to care about this issue… If we took our faith seriously, we would be at the front of the line demanding climate action rather than dragging our feet at the back.”[25] We need to connect who God made us to be with the purpose of our lives.[26] This causes one to correct problematic frames of reference informed by political agendas and dismiss biased points of view that discredit climate science. This leads one to hold values consistent with biblical mandates and establish priorities leading to climate action and justice by caring for those most affected by climate change.

When we see that the elderly, children, and those with respiratory illnesses are most harmed by coal-fired power plant pollution, do we act in accord with the prophet Isaiah?

“Learn to do good; seek justice. Correct the oppressor. Take up the cause of the orphan; plead the case of the widow.” (Is 1:17)

When life-saving air-quality rules are overturned, and economic interests are given priority over compassionate care, do we identify with Mother Mary’s cry of hope for justice?

“He has shown his mighty strength with his arm; He has scattered the proud and the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

When we hear white evangelicals who benefit from unearned privilege, discredit climate science, deny the effects of systemic racism, and ignore the oppression of the marginalized, worship a God whom they declare is in control and proclaim that God cares for those who trust in God, do we say follow the teacher Jesus’ interpretation of the prophet Hosea?

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. But go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matt 9:12-13)

We are the hands and feet of Jesus. We are the voice of Jesus in the world. We are called to correct biased ideologies that produce policies that enable systemic injustice. We are called to be kingdom-building coworkers with Christ. We are called to become merciful, pure-in-heart peacemakers who live into our God-given life purpose to advance God’s plan in a way that pleases God.


Citations

[1] Bauer, Michael, “The State of Global Air/2018: A Special Report on Global Exposure to Air Pollution and its Disease Burden,” HEI and IHME (2018): 1, (accessed May 25, 2023, https://www.stateofglobalair.org/sites/default/files/soga-2018-report.pdf

[2] Abt Associates, “The Toll from Coal: An Updated Assessment of Death and Disease from America’s Dirtiest Energy Source,” Clean Air Task Force, accessed May 25, 2023. https://www.catf.us/resource/the-toll-from-coal/

[3] Abt Associates, 8.

[4] Abt Associates, 5.

[5] Abt Associates, 10.

[6] Abt Associates, 4.

[7] Global Energy Monitor, “Coal Plants Near Residential Areas,” GEM wiki (April 30, 2021) accessed May 25, 2023, https://www.gem.wiki/Coal_plants_near_residential_areas

[8] Abt Associates, 4.

[9] Boustan, 1.

[10] Krause, Eleanor and Reeves, Richard V., “Hurricanes Hit the Poor Hardest,” Brookings Institution (September 18, 2017), accessed May 25, 2023, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2017/09/18/hurricanes-hit-the-poor-the-hardest/

[11] Krause and Reeves.

[12] Long, Heather, “Where Harvey is hitting the hardest, 80% lack flood insurance,” Washington Post, (August 29, 2017), accessed May 25, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/08/29/where-harvey-is-hitting-hardest-four-out-of-five-homeowners-lack-flood-insurance/

[13] Long.

[14] Shweta Jayawardhan, “Vulnerability and Climate Change Induces Human Displacement,” Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development, 17, no. 1 (2017): 119.

[15] Jayawardhan, 120.

[16] Jayawardhan, 120.

[17] Jayawardhan, 125.

[18] Jayawardhan, 103.

[19] Jayawardhan, 104.

[20] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 36.

[21] Klein, 36.

[22] Klein, 26.

[23] Katherine Hayhoe, “The Evangelical Christians Taking on Climate Change,” How to Save a Planet, Podcast Hosted by: Alex Blumberg (Dec. 9, 2021), accessed 1/15/2022 https://gimletmedia.com/shows/howtosaveaplanet/94hnzkl

[24] Joseph R. Wiebe, “Reassessing Mennonite Environmentalism through Settler-Colonialism: Political Deficiencies, Historical Omissions, and Indigenous responses,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review, 96, no. 3, (July 2022): 358.

[25] Hayhoe, How to Save a Planet Podcast.

[26] Katharine Hayhoe, Saving us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021), 19.


0 Comments

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *