By Mary Le Nguyen
South Park is a little neighborhood tucked away in the southwestern corner of Seattle between freeways, factories and a dump. A historically isolated area, South Park became one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Seattle due to its affordable rent. Unfortunately, South Park’s proximity next to Interstate 5 had a greater impact than just the noise of passing cars. Its residents were afflicted with extremely high rates of respiratory diseases from breathing in the same emissions that cause climate change.
Often times, people don’t necessarily think of climate change as having a very direct impact on our lives. It is often seen as an amorphous issue, the effects of which are either felt somewhere else or will be felt at some point in the future. For low-income communities and communities of color in the U.S., the effects are costing us our lives.
Washington Community Action Network (Washington CAN!) is our state’s largest grassroots racial, gender, and social justice community organization with more than 40 thousand members in every corner of the state. We fight to stop climate change by lifting up the very communities most impacted by climate change. While we are most widely known for our work leading the fight to win healthcare reform, climate change is clearly an issue we need to address. We see intersections between the health of our communities and the stability of our climate.
On April 29, our communities will join forces at the People’s Climate March to say enough. Enough health damage to the child living next to a highway who develops asthma as passing vehicles emit airborne pollutants. Enough to the long-term rates of cancer spike for a community living next to a record setting wildfire. Enough for the family that gets sick fishing in polluted waters as it is their only method for getting affordable protein. Enough for the family that forgoes the annual doctor visit to cut costs in order to afford this week’s groceries.
Those of us must hurt by climate change must show how its impact is varied but significant.
For a variety of structurally racist reasons, communities of color are significantly more likely to sit next to pollution creating structures like highways, waste facilities, or industrial plants. As a result, communities of color breathe in nearly 40 percent more pollution than white communities. The inequitable proximity to higher rates of pollution dramatically increases the rates of respiratory diseases like asthma, emphysema, and cancer. South Park, for example, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Seattle, is dealing with raised cancer risks of 400 extra cases per 100,000 people.
Wildfires are also extremely harmful to the health of communities, especially to children and elderly people. The dramatic increase in the number of wildfires is directly related to climate change. Washington State had both the single largest wildfire ever recorded and the most total number of acres burned in the last three years. Near those wildfires, four native reservations were under catastrophic threat.
Climate change threatens food security. As droughts increase and growing conditions change, the cost and availability of quality, healthy foods will become increasingly inaccessible, particularly for communities of color and low-income communities.
Communities of color and low-income communities are the most impacted by climate change at every level. The inequity of health outcomes between communities of color and white communities will deepen as a result of both the factors that cause climate change and the conditions created by climate change itself. The outcomes for communities of color are sicker and shorter lives.
Solutions to climate change need to be equitable, which means the biggest investments should be made in communities most impacted by pollution and environmental injustices. Furthermore, we need look at climate change and environmental degradation as a public health crisis. We need to both treat the health conditions that result from climate change and find ways to mitigate and eliminate the factors causing these inequitable health outcomes. This means investing in quality, affordable treatment for the health conditions caused by climate change like respiratory disease, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. This also means equitable infrastructure investments to both drastically reduce carbon emissions and eliminate the environmental factors that cause inequitable health outcomes in the first place. This includes investing in public transportation, affordable housing away from freeways and factories, renewable energy investments, and creating quality jobs in a green economy so that all families are lifted out of poverty and can afford quality healthcare.
In order to push for these equitable policies, we need to trust the voices of those communities who are most impacted. In Washington State and around the country, we are organizing with low-income and communities of color to lift the voices of those most impacted by climate change. We also need to build coalitions, such as Front & Centered, that connect our communities. As hundreds of thousands of people march on April 29th to lift up the voices of black, brown, indigenous, immigrant, and refugee people in the fight for our planet, we join them knowing that the solutions for the climate and for our health are the same. For South Park, for Washington State, for the entire US, and the world, now more than ever, we must stand together.
Mary Le Nguyen is the executive director of Washington CAN.