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The Environmental Equity Gap: Climate change impacts more than just nature

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

Environmental impact is more than what effects nature and the world around us; it’s how that environment impacts the animals and humans who live in it. When the negative impacts of human activity on the environment predominantly affect lower-income communities, this is referred to as the “environmental equity gap.” Although the environmental equity gap is seen worldwide, we will investigate how this gap is seen in our backyard in California.

Climate Change

Though climate change is devastating to all, its impacts disproportionately impact people of color and those living in low-income communities. Climate change is increasing the rate and force of natural disasters, exacerbating harmful air quality, and making it more difficult to harvest crops. Those living in lower-income communities are more exposed to these dangers and lack the comparable means to endure and recover from their consequences. To understand what this means, let's look at some examples in California.

4 Examples of the Gap in California

California is one of the wealthiest places in the world but is also home to some of the poorest communities. With this vast divide and abundance of environmental catastrophes, there are many examples of the equity gap.

Wine Country

1. Wine Country Fires, prevention in rich vs. poor areas.

In recent years California has become increasingly notorious for wildfires, experiencing around 7,000 fires each year, a number that will only continue to rise as the climate catastrophe continues. In October 2017, 21 major fires broke and burned thousands of acres in numerous California counties, known as the Wine Country Fires.

In a study done by UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, it was found that wildfires are more likely to be suppressed when they are in areas with higher property values. Due to outside motivation, government officials and fire department chiefs tend to deploy their fire containment assets to richer communities. Similarly, lower-income communities are often located in districts with fewer federal resources helping to prevent wildfires from occurring in the first place.

Aside from outside sources, lower-income residents do not have the same funds to secure sufficient property insurance or invest in measures to decrease the ignitability of their homes.

This has been seen over the past decade when comparing counties in Northern California most affected by wildfires. Two primary counties impacted by the fires in 2017 and earlier were Butte county, whose poverty level is 21.3%, and Napa county, which is only 8%. After the wildfires, it was concluded that Butte county experienced the most damages with an estimated $3.52 billion in losses, while their wealthier counterpart Napa only had $0.48 billion in losses.

Not only were the homes of Butte county residents less equipped to withstand the fire, but they also were not allocated the same resources to combat the fires. Government officials employed far more assets to protect the wealthy homes and wineries in high-income districts.

Once the fires were finally put out, the victims of the fires did not recover evenly. All the expensive properties were rebuilt, nicer, and stronger than ever. While those without the same funds were forced to relocate to more affordable locations, leaving the lives, they knew behind. The residents of Butte county are just one example of lower-income residents who do not have sufficient means to endure and recover from natural disasters.

Not only were thousands of properties lost, but the air and water were also contaminated with toxic chemicals. Due to the high percentage of cars and buildings being burned, the air contained high levels of zinc and lead, which are very dangerous when inhaled. After the paradise fires, officials found high levels of benzene and other cancer-causing chemicals in their water sources.

Map of South LA

2. Pollution in South LA.

In 2021 Los Angeles was found to have the worst air quality in the nation, receiving an F in ozone pollution from the American Lung Association. These high pollution rates affect the health and wellness of everyone in the Southern California region, but not equally.

Low-income communities with high percentages of ethnic minorities are usually the neighborhoods and counties with the highest pollution levels, including neighborhoods such as Compton and Lynwood. This is high partly due to the location of these communities, next to freeways and industrial facilities, where the cost of living is lower. For example, 19.3% of the population in Lynwood is employed in the manufacturing industry compared to Pasadena, which only has 5% of its population working in this industry.

In closer proximity to these highly pollutive zones, those living in these communities face a higher probability of contracting asthma, cancer, and other health impairments linked to air pollution. The air pollutants being measured by places such as the EPA include particulate pollution, ground-level ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, and nitrogen oxide. One of the largest health hazards is the particulate matter being inhaled in these communities. These are a mixture of solid particles in liquid droplets, mainly caused by the runoff from construction sites and the manufacturing industry.

Those in more affluent communities such as Beverly Hills experience much lower pollution rates, having the means and zoners who care about what is going on in their community. Already living in a low-income community, the residents of communities such as Compton do not have the means to relocate to areas less affected by harmful air pollution.

Richmond, California

3. Chevron refinery in Richmond, California.

One of the largest contributors to climate change is the increased emission of greenhouse gasses and toxic chemicals into our air. Every geographical location has a different level of air pollution. Lower-income communities are often located in areas with much higher levels, largely due to cheap land costs and a high concentration of highways and industrial factories. Contra Costa is a wealthy county in California, but is also home to Richmond, a relatively poor town largely known for three things: crime, corruption, and Chevron.

As with towns whose median income is below the poverty line, Richmond’s cheap property costs and loose regulations made it the perfect place for a large industrial polluter such as Chevron to set up shop. With few resources, the citizens of Richmond had very little to protect themselves from this refinery which produced millions of metric tons of greenhouse gasses this year.

One of the major components of the environmental equity gap is human health and productivity. In communities such as Richmond, the air quality is so bad that their population has disproportionately high levels of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Dealing with all these medical concerns is very costly and makes it very difficult to remain a productive member of the workforce.

However, all hope is not lost. After decades of dealing with Chevron, the residents of Richmond have decided to take a stand. In 2003, a group of activists formed the Richmond Progressive Alliance (PRA), whose mission was to stop Chevron. The RPA assembled a group of candidates to run for city government, who they believed would refuse bribes and take on the industrial enemy. With their representatives winning a seat on the council, the group has made great strides in making their community a safer place to live.

4. Incentives for recycling in low-income communities in San Bernardino

While most low-income communities suffer more environmental concerns than their wealthier counterparts, some exceptions exist. One such is San Bernardino, whose poverty rate of 17.6% is much higher than the California average.

In 2015, they won the Outstanding Recycler award, largely due to the California Refund Value (CVR) containers. When you purchase a CVR container, you are charged an extra fee, which is then refunded when you return the containers to a collection center, such as a supermarket. The less financially secure citizens are incentivized to collect all the containers from the streets and garbage cans and bring them where they will get properly recycled.

The residents of this community are still vulnerable to the same negative consequences of the environmental equity gap as other such communities, but not in every way. By taking action, they are showing up in wealthier areas, doing more to save the planet, and making their community a better place.

How to be a part of the solution.

While a complex problem, there are many ways for each of us to get involved in working towards bridging this divide and eliminating the problem. Beyond making an effort to help the planet by making careful consumer choices, making your voice heard is the most important action you can take.

Another way is to follow in the footsteps of the Richmond RPA group - vote. To fight the environmental equity gap, it's important to vote for government officials who will look out for the best interest of everyone, especially those in lower-income communities who have been underrepresented for far too long.

Many low-income communities don't have a “political ally” to represent their community's point of view. With the elections coming up, it is time to focus on our government officials’ stance and plans for combating climate change. When making these decisions, it's important to do sufficient research on each candidate and the efficacy of the policies they are proposing or supporting.

Environmental inequality may be a new issue to many people, but it is part of the interconnected set of issues and challenges that must be addressed to pave a path toward a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable future for our planet and its inhabitants.


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