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Racist Housing Practices Linked To Hotter Neighborhoods

“Redlining” exposes low-income, Black, and Brown communities to extreme heat.

by Vanessa Butterworth

July 29, 2020

Coverage of climate impacts often focuses on disasters like wildfires and hurricanes, but more frequent and severe heat waves are one of the most deadly results of climate change.

© Roy Lagarde / Greenpeace

Climate change and social injustice are joined at the hip — and the sooner our leaders and representatives understand this, the better.

It’s long been apparent that the impacts of climate change and fossil fuel pollution disproportionately hurt Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income communities. Now, research from earlier this year shows specific links between past racist policies and increased risk and harm from climate change.

Let’s dig in.

First, the history. “Redlining” is the notorious term for the racist housing policies that pushed Black, Brown, and other minority communities into specific neighborhoods, all while excluding them from access to insurance, financing, and more. These racist housing policies remained in place all the way into the 1960s.

Even though the U.S. passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, systematic oppression like this doesn’t exist within just a specific period of time. It has lasting impacts over generations because it gets so deeply embedded into how society functions. And in this case, oppression dictated how the physical infrastructure of our cities developed. There’s an enduring legacy in communities that were redlined as a result, including health disparities, school funding, and now, climate protection.

At the World War II Memorial, people stay cool by dipping their feet in the water of the fountain. Washington DC has experienced oppressive heat and humidity over recent summers, with temperatures in the high 90’s and heat indexes past 100 degrees. © Livia Ferguson / Greenpeace.

Research shows that there are enormous heat disparities in areas that were previously redlined. On average, summer surface temperatures were five degrees hotter; in some cases, they reached 20 degrees. That’s the difference between wealthy neighborhoods experiencing hot, but not dangerous 85 degree temperatures, while communities of color see life-threatening triple digit temperatures.

Coverage of climate impacts often focuses on disasters like wildfires and hurricanes, but more frequent and severe heat waves are one of the most deadly results of climate change—especially for young or elderly people, disabled people, those with existing health problems, or people without housing or access to air conditioning.

This is just one example of how racism still plays out in the U.S.

Protesters march behind a banner announcing “Communities of Color United: Coalition for Racial Justice.” © Amanda J. Mason / Greenpeace.

Research like this underscores why we can’t simply react to the climate crisis with so-called “neutral” policies like a price on carbon or subsidies for electric vehicles or renewable energy. We need to recognize that climate change both intersects with and exacerbates long-standing racial and economic injustices—and we must confront them together. We need frameworks like the Green New Deal that recognize that we can’t mobilize our economy to stop the climate crisis without providing jobs and healthcare for everyone and putting the most impacted communities first.

We need a responsible phaseout of fossil fuel production with a just transition for workers, to ensure that some communities are not left behind to continue suffering from fracking fluid spills or toxic air pollution from the refinery next door, while others get cleaner and safer.

Greenpeace’s vision is for a more just, equitable, green, and peaceful world for everybody. And that means putting the needs of the communities that have been the targets of racial, economic, and now climate discrimination for too long at the center of the discussion around solutions.

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Originally published on January 31, 2020; last updated on July 29, 2020.

Vanessa Butterworth

By Vanessa Butterworth

Vanessa currently works as the Senior Digital Strategist at Greenpeace and sits on the Rising Tide North America organizing team. Outside of paid work, she organizes with frontline groups against police brutality, gentrification, and environmental racism. Over the past ten years, she's worked on campaign, mobilization, direct action, and movement strategy across the US and Canada. She's originally from Mississauga of the New Credit Territory as known as Caledon, Ontario, but now lives in Oakland, California on Ohlone Territory.

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