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Marty Nathan: Climate crisis has greatest impact on poor people

 

We are entering a time of climate emergency, when murderous mega-storms, droughts, and heat waves are happening with increasing frequency and intensity. We are getting a preview of things to come in this mounting crisis, caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.

The climate change process is occurring in a human society divided not just by geography, but deeply cleaved by class, race and gender. We are not all equally capable of withstanding the onslaught of high winds and rising seas.

What are the climate change lessons so far? The recent Hurricane Matthew follows Katrina, Rita and Sandy in making one very clear statement: Poor people and poor communities, predominantly those of color, have and will increasingly suffer the most from the climate crisis, unless we consciously intervene on several fronts.

Matthew first pummeled western Haiti, destroying thousands of homes and killing hundreds of people, the number not yet settled because assessment and aid provision is still not complete.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Its hillsides are deforested, decreasing barriers to wind and flood damage. Dwellings are poorly made to withstand the power of hurricanes. Lack of roads and transport vehicles prevents evacuation in the face of disaster. Clean water is at a premium, meaning that the cholera bacteria introduced there after the earthquake six years ago could dig in and prosper, killing hundreds and lying in wait for opportunities for new human hosts. Health care resources are extremely limited. And those same nonexistent roads and vehicles bar relief and recovery efforts. The destruction wrought and still ongoing is appalling.

Matthew was the product of climate change. The atmospheric greenhouse gas blanket has warmed the ocean’s surface and has increased evaporation over tropical waters, filling the air with rain that is then dumped in torrents in tropical storms, typhoons and hurricanes. There have been more Level 4 and 5 hurricanes around the world in the last three decades than ever in recorded history. Climatologists and honest observers call them the new normal, the result of the human-heated world.

Coastal and island communities are more vulnerable because of their geography. However, some seaside dwellers, because of wealth and political power, are capable of escaping, withstanding and rebuilding after hurricane winds and flooding. As was so vividly demonstrated in Haiti, the criminal irony is that climate change created by the fossil fuel emissions of the wealthy in the global North disproportionately destroys the lives, livelihoods and communities of the poor and the powerless.

On the U.S. coast, the message was the same. I lived for many years in North Carolina, visiting the eastern part of the state for vacations at the beach. Impressions remain with me of deep poverty in isolated rural communities where lived the descendants of plantation slaves. Lumberton, named the poorest town in the country, is home to an officially unrecognized Lumbee tribe who share the community with African Americans, mostly poor whites and more recently-arrived Latino farmworker families.

When Matthew dumped nine inches of rain on Lumberton’s Robeson County, many were unable to leave, most were unable to take essential belongings, virtually none had flood insurance, and the region has become a human disaster area. Fortunately, no one was killed, but thousands lost homes and work.

Poor rural areas are a haven for environmentally toxic industry, and eastern North Carolina has been a poster child for pollution by hog agribusiness. In general, climate change-derived storms cause breakdown of the barriers between industrial poisons and the water, land and air of the surrounding community. In eastern North Carolina, for the second time in history, flooding produced overflow and breaching of the hog manure pools. No one knows how much or for how long local surface water and wells will be affected.

As Haiti and Lumberton demonstrate, the unequal victimization of the poor by climate disaster in return reinforces the injustice of the economic system. Poor people lose the little they have and may become homeless and displaced, forced to migrate to far-away cities without social support.

It is clear to me from a moral perspective that A) To prevent disaster like we have not imagined, we must address the climate emergency and cut fossil fuel emissions; B) We must protect the socially targeted victims of climate chaos by specifically focusing our resilience efforts on poor nations, communities and individuals; and C) Creating resilience necessarily must involve redistribution of wealth, providing adequate housing, work, income and education to those who are more and more shut out by our stratified social system. This is called climate justice.

I am glad to say we in Massachusetts are taking on the challenge. There is an important effort to cut emissions, the Carbon Pollution Fee and Rebate Plan, afoot in the Legislature. It will place a fee on all fossil fuels entering the state, making them more expensive to burn. All the fees collected will be returned to state residents, so that those who use less gas, oil and coal will come out ahead.

The scheme has been successfully applied to lower greenhouse gas emissions in British Columbia and in several countries around the world. We need to pass and implement it.

However, we must also make sure that it is a progressive measure that benefits working people and the poor just as disproportionately as the climate crisis targets them.

I, as a doctor who has contributed way more than my share of car, airplane and home heat emissions to the atmosphere compared to my impoverished patients in the North End of Springfield, neither need nor deserve a rebate.

We who have benefited the most from the fossil fuel orgy of the last several decades can afford to give back to create a more just and climate change-resilient society.

Let’s learn from the last disaster while we do our best to prevent the next one.

Dr. Marty Nathan lives in Northampton and is a physician at Baystate Brightwood Health Center in Springfield. She is on the steering committee of Climate Action NOW.

Published in the Gazette Oct 10, 2016