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Closing the Climate Gap

New America Media, Q&A Audio, Sandip Roy Posted: Dec 13, 2009

The climate change summit in Copenhagen brings together leaders from all over the world to make the point that when polar ice caps melt and sea levels rise, everyone is affected. But a recent report suggests that climate change hits people of color and the poor much harder than others. For example, African Americans in Los Angeles are nearly twice as likely to die from a heat wave than other city residents. Rachel Morello-Frosch, Associate Professor of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the authors of The Climate Gap. She spoke with Sandip Roy on New America Now radio. Here are some excerpts:

What is the climate gap?

The climate gap describes how climate change is going to disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color in terms of health and economic impacts.

Why is it that African Americans are twice as likely to die from a heat wave in L.A. than other residents?

Heat waves are disproportionately impacting African Americans for a variety of reasons. One reason is that African Americans are less likely to have air conditioning in their homes. They have homes that are not as well weatherized and so they get hotter. They are also disproportionately affected by chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, which makes them particularly vulnerable to heat waves. African Americans and low income communities also tend to be located in neighborhoods that are likely to experience what we call heat island effects. Those urban areas get particularly hot in part because of all the pavement and very little shade from trees.

Within highly smoggy cities, there is also a lot of difference in terms of air quality. There is a disparity in terms of where low-income people live. They tend to live in those neighborhoods within smoggy cities like L.A. where the air quality is particularly bad where they don't have relief from things like sea breezes.

What is going to be the impact of climate change on agricultural fields?

From a health standpoint, we are starting to see increased rates of morbidity, illness and death associated with heat waves among agricultural workers both in California and nationwide. The reason why we're seeing this increase is, in part, because extreme temperature events are occurring more frequently, but also because these workers don't have access to things that we generally take for granted to help ourselves through heat waves: access to fresh water, the ability to cool off and sit in the shade. They don't have control over their working conditions to protect themselves from the impacts of heat waves. They are vulnerable and they can literally die on the job.

Will new measures in California such as nitrogen oxide reduction and stricter standards for cars and trucks help reduce the climate gap?

It's not necessarily going to narrow the gap between low-income communities, communities of color, and the rest of the state. What we need are targeted efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We need to target those industries with major greenhouse gas emissions that are also producing toxic air contaminants in those communities which have the worst air quality. Basically, we want to make sure that we get the biggest bang for our carbon reduction buck, and ensure that the public health benefits of those carbon reductions occur in the neighborhoods that need it the most.

What are some of the discussions regarding policy standards for cars?

There have been suggestions of a rebate program that theoretically would be revenue neutral. The people who bought new cars that were not energy efficient would pay a tax, and then those people who bought extremely fuel efficient cars would get a rebate. The question is can you provide incentives for people to trade up? That requires an extra revenue stream in order to cushion and enable lower income consumers to do those upgrades. That's where the political rub lies.

I think another thing we should keep in mind is that previous efforts to get the so called junkers off the road have run into problems, because very often, purchasing programs to get some of these older cars off the roads give credit for those cars that are actually so run-down that they are not on the road at all anyway.

How is climate change going to affect the economy?

Climate change itself is going to have a direct economic impact on the consumer pocketbook. Let me play out an example in terms of energy costs. Climate change is going to affect energy demand. As we see major weather events such as heat waves, people are going to have increased demand for energy because of their need to run their air conditioners longer. That increased demand makes power plants run less efficiently. Droughts are going to make it hard for power plants to cool their operations, thereby increasing the costs of their operations as well. Who do power companies pass on those increased operating costs to? The consumers. This disproportionately impacts low income households, because overall they pay up to two times more in terms of their total income for energy than anybody else.

What about in terms of the kinds of jobs that are going to be available?

Studies have indicated that agricultural productivity, particularly in the dairy sector and in the grape and wine industry, is expected to decrease because of climate change, decreases in accessibility to water, and increases in the prices of inputs to produce these products. This could result in significant employment declines in these sectors.

What about green jobs?

Green jobs is an area of opportunity in terms of climate change policy. Climate change policy at the federal level is trying to address this. It's becoming clear that certain industries that are very fossil fuel intensive are going to have to be phased out if we really are going to move our economy to a low carbon emitting system. Federal legislation and some of the stimulus packages that have been forthcoming since the beginning of this year are an attempt to stimulate investments in green jobs to enable some of the shifting and retraining necessary if we are going to move towards a low carbon economy.

Is there any indication that the stimulus money in California might be used to address the climate gap issue?

One of the things that we point out in the report in terms of recommendations for future policy strategies is that we need to identify climate gap communities so that we can target those green job investments to the communities that are going to need them the most. Those communities can be targeted both geographically in terms of counties that are going to be hardest hit by climate change impacts, as well as by sector in terms of the jobs that are going to be greened out because of our efforts to move to a low carbon economy.

For example, we may want to be targeting investments in green jobs in communities that are highly dependent on oil refining. Or one would want to funnel some investments in green job industries in those places where you might see high rates of unemployment because of climate change impacts on the agricultural sector.

Are you optimistic that California will be able to mitigate the effects of the climate gap?

Conversations about addressing climate change need to occur in tandem with discussions about how we are going to close the climate gap. If we do a better job at protecting the most vulnerable among us, climate change policies to address climate change are going to do a better job of protecting all of us.

Rachel Morello-Frosch is one of the authors of the The Climate Gap.

To hear the full version of the interview with Rachel Morello-Frosch, Click here.

Transcribed by Andrew Berry

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