Environmental Racism Made Worse by Global Warming: West Coast Edition

One key to understanding the world as it exists today, is understanding that most of it has been shaped by white supremacy for most of the last few hundred years. That’s not the only factor, but it’s one of the biggest ones, and it is still an active ideology, in one form or another, in most of the ruling class of the so-called “West”. This doesn’t just affect non-white people in those countries, though, because the colonial empires – primarily the U.S. these days – still exert a great deal of control over the so-called “Global South”.

Environmental racism is one effect of white supremacy, both on the global scale, and on the local scale, as the least powerful are routinely forced to live with exposure to mine runoff, industrial chemicals, coal dust, traffic pollution, and more. When it comes to traffic pollution, keep in mind that a combination of segregation, redlining, and malice in designing the interstate highways system, black communities were very deliberately forced, by the government, to live with higher air pollution, on average, than white communities. As with climate change, none of us are safe from air pollution, but it is not a coincidence that in a country built on white supremacy, as the United States was, non-white people have it the worst.

I say “as with climate change”, but the reality is that climate change isn’t really separable from air pollution. Global warming, in a myriad of ways, both causes air pollution, and makes “existing” pollution more dangerous. I suspect one would find similar results around the globe, but for a local example of how this works, and how it relates to race, we can look at this study of how the rising temperature will make existing inequality worse:

“We have known that air pollution disproportionally impacts communities of color, the poor and communities that are already more likely to be impacted by other sources of environmental pollution,” said the study’s lead author Jordan Kern, assistant professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State. “What we know now is that drought and heat waves makes things worse.”

For the study, researchers estimated emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter from power plants in California across 500 different scenarios for what the weather could look like in future years, which they called “synthetic weather years.” These years simulated conditions that could occur based on historical wind, air, temperature and solar radiation values on the West Coast between 1953 and 2008. Then by using information about the location of power plants in California and how much electricity they would be generating under different weather conditions, they estimated air pollution within individual counties.

They saw the worst air pollution in the hottest, driest years, which Kern said is due to the demand for more air conditioning during hot years. In addition, drought can impact the availability of hydropower. The excess electricity has to come from somewhere else, which is where fossil fuel plants come in.

“One of the things we were interested in was teasing apart the relative roles of drought, which can be chronic, lasting for months or years, versus heat waves, which can happen like a flash in a pan,” Kern said. “We found drought is a driver of chronic pollution exposure, but heat waves are responsible for these incredible spikes in emissions in a short period of time.”

They also saw that counties with a higher existing pollution burden were disproportionately impacted by pollution during drought and heat waves. Counties that were more diverse by race and ethnicity were also far more likely to be impacted by increased emissions from power plants during droughts and heat waves.

“The more diverse your county is by race and ethnicity, the more likely you are to be impacted by air pollution on an annual basis,” Kern said. “During a drought, the relationship is more pronounced.”

Ideally, those power plants will be replaced with nuclear and renewable power sources, but it doesn’t seem like our leaders are in any hurry to get that done, which means we’re still forced to deal with fossil fuel plants. This is also not a problem that can be viably solved by asking people to not use air conditioning, or by rationing power during heat waves, because those heat waves are getting longer, and hotter, and killing more people as the climate warms. We’ve always needed to adapt our surroundings to deal with temperature, but we’re entering the first phase of human history where increasing numbers of people will need access to artificial cooling to survive.

The study authors also explored policy scenarios, and found that taxing companies for pollution produced would help the problem except during heat waves, but you probably won’t be surprised to learn that I find that solution to be inadequate. As with the rail companies, power generation and distribution should be nationalized, as a first step in ending the use of fossil fuels. There may be a place for using taxation to gently guide corporate behavior, but this is not it. Even if I did not believe that electricity should be treated as a public good, these corporations have been continuously demonstrating, for longer than I’ve been alive, that they cannot be trusted to operate responsibly, or with any concern for the public good. Justice demands it, both as a response to the climate crisis, and as one very small step toward dealing with environmental racism.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Why do so many ecology activists these days consider it viable and reasonable to support using an energy source that leaves untreatable high-maintenance pollution in the environment for millennia, centralizes economic power in giant utility & mining corporations, and, yes, poisons minority communities in particular?

  2. says

    Because nuclear power is less dangerous than fossil fuels, and newer designs don’t have the same set of risks.

    Recent power plant problems have been in plants that are decades past the time when they were supposed to stop operating.

    I don’t like the idea of nuclear plants being operated for profit, but there’s no question that they provide a lot of energy without CO2 emissions, and would make ending fossil fuel use a lot easier.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Oops, please let me try those three links again:

    Please educate yourself on the issues.

    Suppose we’d had nuclear power in the past. Europe now breaks out in a cold sweat when the fighting in Ukraine nears the sites of Chernobyl or Zaporizhzhia; imagine how we’d feel if similar sites existed around the world, with centuries of carcinogenicity remaining in pits and bioaccumulating, just so Cleopatra could blow-dry her hair in front of her air conditioner.

    The next generations will curse us sufficiently already.

  5. says

    I share your concerns, about war, but I’d like to remind you that renewable energy ALSO requires a huge amount of resource extraction, including toxic materials, often at the expense of indigenous people all over the world. It’s a problem that we need to solve either way, and if you only bring it up to oppose nuclear power, it feels a bit disingenuous.

    And as I’ve mentioned in the past, air conditioning is going to keep becoming more of a necessity for survival, depending on where you live. We’re not talking about whatever your Cleopatra thing is, we’re talking about heat stroke.

    It’s not an easy call, but while I disagree with the notion that nuclear is our only option, I think that it would be foolish to just wave it away.

    Regardless of how we go about it, though, if we want anything resembling justice, we need to focus more on global political and economic dynamics than on the exact nature of what’s being extracted and used.

    Environmental racism isn’t somehow a natural function of the technologies causing the pollution etc.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    C’mon: radioisotopes cause more harm for longer than CO2.

    And reactors take decades to build, pre-empting both capital and attention needed for actually beneficial projects.

    Do not buy the greenwashing!

  7. says

    CO2 is not the only pollutant from fossil fuels.

    And CO2 is what’s threatening us with extinction, not radioisotopes.

Leave a Reply

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