President Obama’s trip to New York City today underscores the fact that it’s time for people who care about racial and economic justice to take center stage in the climate change debate. For years climatologists and economists have warned that the consequences of a changing climate would fall first, hardest and fastest on those already staggering under the weight of racial and economic disparities. This “climate gap”—given its name in a 2009 University of California report—was brought into sharp relief by Sandy.
Though the storm’s destructive capacity was spread across 200 miles, the consequences of the damage were uneven. In fact, Sandy revealed that economic inequality has life and death consequences. Nowhere highlights the point more than New York City’s aftermath in the storm’s wake.
Sandy and the Climate Gap
New York City’s economy is larger than Switzerland’s or South Korea’s. But its glitter and gold obscures the fact that one out of three people here live on the economic edge, working hourly wage jobs in fast food restaurants, retail stores, or hotels. The bottom 20 percent of workers in New York, according to the Census Bureau, earn less than $10,000 a year. As in the rest of the country, these workers are disproportionately black and brown. Nearly six out of 10 residents of New York City is a person of color.
In a cruel twist of irony, Sandy smashed into the world’s wealthiest city but hit its poorest neighborhoods the hardest. Hardscrabble Red Hook, Coney Island, and the Rockaways were left wrecked by the storm. Working class Staten Island looked as if a tactical nuclear bomb had gone off. One out of three people who died from Sandy in the United States lived in New York City. Almost all of them came from the boroughs where working poor and non-salaried New Yorkers call home.
Though Sandy claimed dozens of lives, the pain and anguish for the city’s economically distressed didn’t end there. As the storm wiped out a week’s wages for many, scores of New Yorkers struggled to make ends meet. Even now, 40,000 New York City residents are still homeless from the event. The majority of them live in public housing.
At the beginning of this week, elderly and disabled residents continued to be trapped in apartment towers without power, heat, or food. Not having seen a sign of the Red Cross, neighbors organized themselves into do-it-yourself relief groups to ensure that the most vulnerable were looked after. Some were even forced to raid local stores and pharmacies in the days after Sandy had passed to make that happen.
As if death, economic hardship and homelessness were not enough, two of the city’s hospitals for the poor, including its largest Bellevue, was knocked off line, evacuated, and rendered inoperable. Another private hospital, New York University’s Langone Center, shared a similar fate. Due to the storm’s damage, 26,000 students in hard-hit areas are forced to attend schools out of their home area, adding another stumbling block to securing a good education for those that most require it.
Climate Change Is Real
None of this is a surprise.
Since the 1980s, scientists have warned that climate change—fueled by carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels like oil and coal—would cause extreme weather. Back then the scientific community was fairly certain of the link between carbon dioxide, climate change, and extreme weather. Now they are certain of it. According to Texas A&M Professor Andrew Dressler, 99.997 percent of scientific literature each year “explicitly or implicitly” confirms climate change.
Just two months before Sandy arrived, James E. Hansen, one of the original government scientists at NASA to sound the alarm bell on climate change, wrote in the Washington Post, “My projections about increasing global temperature have been proved true. But I failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise would drive an increase in extreme weather.”
His comments came at end of the summer, during which the country experienced its worst drought in nearly a century. Even in September, 40 percent of America was still bone dry. This is the hottest year ever recorded. It beat out 2010, which had held the record before. “[F]or the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change,” Hansen concludes.
A warmer overall climate leads to warmer oceans, in formerly cooler places, for longer stretches of time. Warm oceans are the jet fuel of hurricanes like Sandy. Leading climate scientist Gerald Meehl told the AP earlier this year, “This is what global warming is like and we’ll see more of this as we go into the future.”
There’s already been significant conversation about the climate gap in a global context. According to the Center for American Progress, for instance, people of color and the economically disadvantaged worldwide bear the brunt of climate change. They state that “over the next two or three decades, vulnerable regions (particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia) will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises, and catastrophic flooding driven by climate change.”
The same forces, however, are also at work in the U.S. The University of California’s climate gap report asserts that “unless something is done, the consequences of America’s climate crisis will harm … those who are least able to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the worst consequences.” That’s certainly been true after Sandy and was as clear as day after Katrina.
The good news is that there is a solution to both climate change and the climate gap. In fact, the answer is the same.
We must transform our high-carbon economy into a cleaner, more efficient low-carbon-emissions economy. This means producing more power from wind, solar, biofuels and even natural gas. The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that we can have an economy that is 60 percent larger than at present, but which uses the same amount of energy. What’s more, the technology to do so already exists. Such a transformation would create millions of new jobs. Weatherizing homes, installing solar panels, erecting wind farms, and building smaller neighborhood power plants that could run off of locally generated garbage or other biomass would help put the country back to work.
In addition to shaping our low-carbon future, we must also prepare for the impact of the damage already caused. The Earth has already warmed and oceans have already risen. These new realities have to be met head on.
New York has a plan on the shelf to build $10 billion in coastal defenses for the city. These include both high barriers submerged in the water, which could be brought to the surface in a storm, and low-tech solutions, such as turning over parts of the city’s coast to nature in order to create an environmental defense against storms.
These plans would not only make New York, and other cities like New Orleans, better prepared. They would also mean jobs. The Department of Transportation estimates that every $1 billion spent on infrastructure can create as many as 27,000 jobs.
Infrastructure and green jobs would be a natural fit for the nearly two million construction workers who lost their jobs during the recession. Construction employment is filled by mostly black and Latino men, who’ve been disproportionately impacted by the downturn. Young men of color have struggled ever since the economy tanked.
Moreover, many of these workers would be hired under government contracting rules. These rules mandate racial and wage fairness, both of which would go a long way to boosting hourly earnings. Additionally, green jobs know-how could act as a spring board to greater skills in new technology and new techniques. As a result of their experience, these workers would be better prepared for the future.
Closing the Gap
Building a low carbon economy means that we must demand that our elected officials, from the president on down, put climate change and the climate gap near the top of our national agenda. But, we also have to demand that they impose a special tax on fossil fuels to pay for all the changes we need to make.
A carbon tax would allow us to accurately account for the cost that fossil fuels have on our economy. It would also provide the revenue that we would use to build our low carbon future and create millions of jobs.
Other countries, like Australia, have implemented a carbon tax in a fair way. Most of the burden is born by fossil fuel producers, like oil and coal companies. Tax breaks are then passed on to average citizens. Our carbon plan should be equally as fair.
More than anything, closing the climate gap and turning the tide on climate change requires a fundamental shift in values. It means re-orienting our economic system to one that minimizes racial and economic inequities. If we want a stable society and a stable planet, we can’t continue to concentrate economic and social benefits in the hands of the few and demand that the many pay for it.
If Sandy has taught us anything, it’s that the time has finally arrived for us to mind the gap.