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Environment: Ecological Disasters, Part 2–Climate Change

Who Climate Change Really Hurts; our Continuing Focus on the Environment 

By Sage Lively | Hamilton College Intern 

As we all know, climate change continues to escalate across the world. Ecological disasters become more and more common each day. The climate crisis is something we should all be scared of, but it doesn’t affect us all proportionally. Data has shown that around the world it is consistently impoverished and lower-income communities that have faced the brunt of climate change. 

Climate disasters have been shown to disproportionately affect lower income and agricultural communities, as well as racial and ethnic minorities. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Black and African American individuals are 34% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma diagnoses. This rises to 41% under 4°C (7.2°F) of global warming.“ 

Childhood asthma has been connected to pollution rates, especially in urban areas where the population is most exposed to harmful emissions. Black and African American communities are also 40% more likely to be vulnerable to the projected increase in temperature related deaths, as we continue to face record breaking extreme temperatures. 

Variables like air quality and dangerous weather seem like universal factors, perhaps even unavoidable, but both can be individually combated by money. Protections like insulation, heating, air conditioning, or even finding real estate in safer, less polluted areas are all privileges unavailable to millions of people. 

These inequities are exacerbated by the economic effects of climate change, as many of the most severely affected areas reduce labor hours, or have less accessible transportation as a result of these extreme conditions. 

As reported by the EPA, Hispanic and Latino individuals are 43% more likely to face reduced work hours, and 50% to currently live in areas with traffic delays and transportation issues due to coastal flooding. 

Impoverished communities, already disproportionately affected, only grow in numbers in the face of climate change. According to the World Bank, “Without urgent action, climate change could push an additional 100 million people into poverty.”

 More and more people are forced into poverty as their very livelihoods depend on natural resources. 75% of the world’s poor in rural areas, with careers like fishing and farming, depend on forests, lakes, and oceans, all of which are quickly disappearing or being depleted. For these communities, there is no safety net when these resources fail them, “Only 1 in 5 of the poorest people in low-income countries are covered by social safety net programs” (The World Bank). 

Climate change’s effects on impoverished and lower-income communities is not a secret; the data is irrefutable. Thankfully, there have even been steps to combat this inequality, including the Justice40 Initiative, in which the Federal government ensures that at least 40-percent of climate and clean energy investments are put towards helping disadvantaged communities. While this is a positive step, we have to ask, what do cleaner climate initiatives look like, and how will they truly affect disadvantaged populations? 

One example of a widely spread, much publicized eco-friendly initiative is the anti-plastic straws movement. The ‘Skip the Plastic Straw’ campaign spread like wildfire, causing many large companies like Starbucks to switch to other more eco-friendly solutions like paper straws, and some states and cities to put bans in place. 

With an empathy inducing catchphrase like ‘save the turtles,’ many individuals were inspired to act as well, and reusable metal or bamboo straws became commonplace. Combating the harmful overuse of plastic and turning to reusable alternatives is always a positive thing, but it’s also important to note who is negatively impacted by eco movements. In the case of the plastic straw, the answer is the disabled community. 

According to Kirsten Schultz, a disabled activist, “plastic bendy straw was actually first used among people with illness and disability before it became a mainstream utensil.” Plastic straws are designed for disabled use. They’re able to bend for arthritic hands or other movement limiting disabilities, and are allergen friendly. Their widespread use and availability guaranteed that the disabled community had access to an essential tool in nearly all restaurants and cafes. 

That is, until the bans. The disabled community is now forced to turn to alternatives like bamboo, metal, paper, or silicone—all of which are either non-flexible, defeating the original purpose of more easy drinking, choking hazards, or contain major allergens like corn or gluten. “This includes the glue used on paper straws. Despite assurances of safety from organizations such as Starbucks that have switched to compostable options, people are having to go to the ER in anaphylaxis because of these allergens. There are currently no regulations stating that allergens in these straws must be shared and there is little research about how many people with allergies have reactions to these straws’’ (Kirsten Schultz). 

Some plastic straws bans have an exception that the customer can make a specific request, but this puts service workers in the dangerous position of deciding who, exactly, is disabled enough to merit a straw, an impossible task when many disabilities are ‘invisible.’ Schultz describes how these bans are “discriminatory and against the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)”. 

And who does this ban help? Ideally, the turtles, or the environment at large. And maybe it does—hopefully, it does. But does the plastic saved from becoming a Starbucks straw just now go into their larger, straw free plastic lids? 

This is not an indictment of those trying to help the environment, or even nihilism in the face of our dire straits. Rather, this is a reminder to ask: who is really hurt by climate change? When disadvantaged communities are already suffering disproportionately in the face of ecological disasters, our solutions should not also be at their cost. What if the straws are but the first in a pattern of ‘solutions’? When we inevitably have to act to cut down on oil usage, will we target public transport instead of private planes? When we finally act to replant trees and reinstitute our forests, will it be on rural farmland? 

There is no perfect or easy way to combat climate change. The little things can and do matter. However, it’s important to remember going forward that the people most affected by environmental damages are not the same people who control environmental legislation and regulation. The next time we’re told to look towards straws for ocean pollution, let’s instead look towards the 6,000 barrel, 27 mile-long oil spill this year alone. 

Mark Ziobro
Mark Ziobro
Mark is the current Managing Editor for The Utica Phoenix, and a Central New York Native.

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