Caring for the environment also means caring for fellow humans

by Lauren Dixon

After living through a tornado in March of 2023, it became clear to me that people are not treated equally when it comes to the resources and support available after experiencing a natural disaster. While the relationship between tornadoes and climate change may not be entirely clear, we do know that a warming earth is behind the extreme weather experienced globally. Thus, environmental activism and social justice activism are inextricably linked.

My fiance and I were lucky enough to have our home still standing, a fate that people just three streets over did not share. We ended up with two trees on our roof, but our roof did not cave in because our deck absorbed the brunt of the force. Our deck, fence and roof were destroyed and are now being replaced. In every sense, I have been incredibly privileged throughout this process. My fiance and I have good jobs that afford us the money to have homeowners insurance, an emergency fund for any out-of-pocket costs, and family who let us stay with them until we got power back.

However, many people across the United States are not as lucky, especially those in low-income areas. Some communities may struggle to recover infrastructure, others their health or jobs sectors — every local crisis requires specific responses to guide recovery. FEMA and other disaster relief organizations can provide funding to communities hit by natural disasters, but they only provide funding to make a home habitable without considering any of the other costs or residents’ needs. Higher needs of intervention require more money and more resources, some of which come out of residents’ pockets. This means that low-income communities are more likely than their higher-income counterparts  to be declared as non-recoverable.1

The inequity is clear. Low-income people, often in communities of color and developing countries, not only suffer the most damage from extreme weather but are offered the least amount of recovery support. Moreover, according to a report by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), “The two groups that suffer most from this injustice are those least responsible for the climate crisis: poorer and marginalized people already struggling with climate impacts today, and future generations who will inherit a depleted carbon budget and a world accelerating towards climate breakdown.”2

Numerous countries that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change have contributed the least to the problem, yet they are facing extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods and other climate-related disasters. An example of this is Pakistan in the summer of 2022: extreme rainfall resulted in flooding that affected almost a third of the country. Nearly 33 million people were affected and more than 1,500 died due to the flooding  in Pakistan, which contributes just 0.8% of all global emissions annually.3

Extreme weather events can have severe consequences, including injury, illness, and death. Changes in precipitation patterns and warmer water temperatures have contributed to the flourishing of bacteria, viruses, parasites, and toxic algae. Heavy rain and flooding can lead to water contamination and pollute drinking water, causing gastrointestinal illnesses and damage to livers and kidneys. Furthermore, extreme weather events can disrupt power, water, transportation, and communication systems, including emergency services and healthcare networks.4  Disadvantaged communities across the world are particularly vulnerable due to substandard housing and aging infrastructure, which can be more susceptible to damage, power outages, and water issues. These communities may lack access to healthcare and medications and don’t have the option to purchase health insurance. Additionally, they may not have access to transportation to flee the effects of extreme weather or resources like home insurance to relocate or rebuild after a disaster. All of these barriers further trap disadvantaged communities and their residents in a cycle of poverty from which it is almost impossible to escape.

It comes down to the actions that people must take to get their basic needs met. If I am hungry, I have money, I can drive two minutes to Taco Bell, finish eating in 10 minutes, and drive back home, having spent just 14 minutes of my time spent getting food. By contrast, low-income people in developing countries who are hungry have extremely limited food options. They will spend exponentially more time trying to secure basic resources such as food and clean drinking water than others with access to money.

Those of us who do not have to fight day in and day out to stay alive and don’t have to worry about basic needs, such as access to food, clean water, shelter, and healthcare, have a tremendous responsibility. We must take the lead against climate change to lessen its impact on low-income and disadvantaged communities. Here are just a few personal actions to consider implementing in our daily lives:

  • Reduce energy consumption by switching to renewable energy sources and using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.
  • Reduce water usage and take steps to conserve water.
  • Reduce meat consumption.
    • This doesn’t mean you can never eat meat again. Consider smaller changes like “Meatless Monday”to decrease your impact.
  • Plant trees and support reforestation initiatives.
    • Many state and local parks enlist volunteers to help plant new flowers or trees, so consider looking up your city’s upcoming environmental events (usually only in the Spring). If it is no longer Springtime when you read this, you can always go to a local park and look for common invasive plants and cull them from that area to let native plants flourish. Here is a general article on common invasive plants, but to make it more specific you can Google “XYZ  State Invasive Plants.”
  • Reduce food waste and dispose of waste properly.
    • This can be pretty difficult to do. We’ve all been guilty of leaving produce or other things in our fridges and pantries for too long and they go bad. Here’s a short guide on how to reduce your food waste.
  • Support policies and initiatives that prioritize the environment and promote sustainability.
    • When voting, be sure to look up your candidate’s views on the environment and environmental policy. Look up the politician here.
  • Advocate for climate-friendly legislation and support organizations that focus on environmental protection and education.
    • Consider donating money to or volunteering with environmental non-profits (such as the Sierra Club). You can also write or call your state’s legislators to request a yes vote on an environmentally friendly bill.

Lauren Dixon is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization team. If you have a suggestion for a future blog topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.


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