For the country’s most vulnerable, the new government climate report is especially dire
Indigenous tribes, farmworkers, and low-income communities of color are already bearing the brunt of climate change, an inequality scientists predict will rapidly worsen in states like Texas and Florida, among others.
According to the second part of the fourth-ever National Climate Assessment (NCA), climate change is here, rapidly accelerating, and impacting the United States more than ever. The report carries dire tidings for the entire country, emphasizing sea-level rise, hurricanes, wildfires, and income loss across the nation.
Released by the Trump administration on Black Friday, seemingly in an effort to bury its findings, the congressionally-mandated NCA is authored by hundreds of scientists, many from 13 different federal departments and agencies. The 1,656-page report is expansive, covering issues relevant to every region in the country.
But for those already suffering disproportionately from the impacts of climate change, the report’s findings are even bleaker.
“People who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts,” the report states.
That narrative appears throughout the report. One key example is last year’s Hurricane Harvey, a tragedy the NCA singles out to highlight the impact of increasingly perilous hurricanes. Warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico allowed Harvey to supercharge and then stall over southeastern Texas, with devastating results.
Texas is one of the most uninsured states in the country, something the NCA notes in its assessment of health ramifications stemming from Harvey. The hurricane unleashed “untreated infectious human waste” which entered the waters submerging areas like the city of Houston, causing “a spike in skin and gastrointestinal infections.” But many Texans could not afford to seek care, while others saw disruptions in their medical treatment (more than 11 percent of the state suffers from diabetes, for instance.)
At least 63 deaths are connected to the storm’s immediate effects, according to the report, without accounting for those who died in the many months that followed.
Harvey’s arrival also left undocumented immigrants and many low-income residents with few options, placing them in danger as the Category 4 storm drew near. Following the disaster, aid was slow to come for the Texans who needed it most, many of them Black and Latinx residents in neighborhoods like Houston’s Kashmere Gardens. That majority Black area, where the average income is around $23,000 annually, is notoriously prone to flooding and will only become more perilous as hurricanes become more frequent.
More than a year after the storm, those worst hit by Harvey are still struggling to recover. Elsewhere in the state, hurricanes aren’t the only problem. Extreme and worsening heat waves continue to threaten low-income Texans without cooling systems, along with the incarcerated, many of whom are in danger of sweltering to death in the state’s notorious prisons.
Other marginalized communities are also suffering from the impacts of climate change and will be even more vulnerable in the years to come. Throughout the wider Southern Great Plains states — Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas — indigenous tribes are directly threatened by global warming.
“No climate change impacts are as significant to the tribes and Indigenous peoples of the Southern Great Plains as those that threaten the ability to procure food, water, shelter, and preserve ancient cultural activities,” the NCA states. “Given the ancient symbiotic relationship between environment and culture that shapes tribal identities and life-way practices, climate-induced changes to the seasons, landscapes, and ecosystems pose an existential threat to tribal cultural traditions and community resilience.”
Among other immediate impacts, the NCA notes that Cheyenne tribal Chief Gordon Yellowman has already cited excessive heat, invasive species, and drought as direct threats to the tribe’s famous Sun Dance ceremony. Natural materials for the event in western Oklahoma are being choked out by invasive poison ivy, which in turn is also poisoning members of the tribe.
Like other indigenous communities across the country, tribes in the region are struggling to combat these issues.
“Most tribes and Indigenous peoples remain dependent on underfunded federal programs and grants for building and construction activities to improve the resilience of their infrastructure in the face of climate change threats,” the NCA notes.
There is, however, a silver lining for some tribes. “Many larger and wealthier tribes have modeled construction and design of homes and large commercial building best practices on “green” or resilient net-zero carbon footprint designs,” the report continues.
Those practices include increasing community gardens, expanding recycling and water conservation projects, and investing in “climate-resilient community design.” The NCA notes that such efforts allow tribes “to leapfrog significant obstacles” faced by local governments when attempting to address climate change.
As some tribes try to adapt, however, others are out of time. The Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw who live in the bayous of South Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, are already losing their home to sea-level rise and flooding. Already, the tribe’s population has dropped from 400 to 85 people, a decline the NCA finds is due largely “to land loss and flooding driven by climate change, extreme weather, and unsustainable development practices, which stem from oil and gas production, extraction, and water-management practices.”
Prominent cities in the Northeastern United States are also set to suffer significantly from climate impacts, thanks largely to the region’s aging infrastructure and over-filled urban centers. But a myriad of factors will contribute to how communities in cities like Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and New York fare, particularly social demographics, with low-income residents and people of color set to suffer disproportionately.
“Underrepresented communities, such as the poor, elderly, language-isolated, and recent immigrants, are more vulnerable due to their limited ability to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate events,” the assessment notes.
Outside of cities, other vulnerable communities include farmworkers in states like Florida and California, the latter of which is reeling from the deadliest wildfire in its history. According to the NCA, wildfires in the West are only set to worsen, deteriorating air quality and driving up PM2.5 concentrations — microscopic, dangerous particulate matter that can harm human health.
Farmworkers in the Golden State already suffer disproportionately when air quality worsens, as do people without homes. Earlier this month, while schools canceled class due to unhealthy air quality, farmworkers continued to labor in the fields, many without the protective masks recommended for those spending any time outdoors. The nature of their jobs isn’t going to change, but as wildfires become more and more common, many will increasingly be exposed to outsized health risks — decreasing their lifespans and, for undocumented workers, imperiling their immigration status if they seek help.
Florida’s farmworkers are also in danger. An October report on the conditions facing farmworkers in the state already found that climate change is dramatically impacting their health as temperatures rise. Increasingly devastating hurricanes are also displacing farmworkers, impacting their incomes, and shortening the seasons when they are able to work.
The NCA indicates that trend will only worsen. Ground-level ozone, which can exacerbate breathing problems and cause other health issues, is worsening across the Southeast, with outdoor workers likely to be severely impacted. Heat and humidity are also on the rise, further souring conditions for those out in the fields.
Protecting vulnerable people and mitigating the impacts of climate change are central to the NCA’s recommendations, but the assessment plainly notes that any successful efforts “depend primarily on decisions made today.” Reactions to the report have ranged wildly, however, with a number of Republican lawmakers downplaying its findings.
The fifth installment of the NCA would be published during President Donald Trump’s second term, if he is re-elected. While some Democrats have downplayed the need for aggressive climate action when they take over the House of Representatives in 2019, others have indicated they will make tackling climate change a top priority.
The White House itself has said that the assessment is “largely based on the most extreme scenario,” a claim scientists who contributed to the report have rebutted. On Monday afternoon, Trump finally weighed in on the assessment to reporters, after saying he had “read some of” the sweeping document.
“I don’t believe it,” the president said.