Redlining, racism and climate change: A history of interconnected harms and solutions

  • Published on August 10th, 2020

The climate fight is inseparable from the fight for racial justice, and four recent stories make it clear why yet again. Land use changes and urban development are key aspects of climate solutions, but if they’re done in a way that doesn’t address historic and systemic racism, it’s going to perpetuate those harms.

Poll shows Black voters want bold plans, not recycled reforms
(Photo CC by Tim Dennell on Flickr.)

By Climate Denier Roundup

Why? The short answer is redlining.

As we explained when discussing the link between flooding and redlining back in June, or when we talked about gas in buildings and redlining in July of ‘19, redlining was part of the New Deal, in which the government codified segregation by color-coding maps to indicate which neighborhoods were wealthy and white (and therefore deserving of generous home loans and development) and which were poorer and home to people of color — literally outlined on the official maps in red. The maps effectively gave banks a direction to deny loans for Black communities, and served as a template for city investment for decades.

As a result, whiter and already more affluent neighborhoods were given more generous loans as well as more preferential development treatment. And we can see the intended results: redlined areas are poor, polluted and industrial, while the more favorably treated white neighborhoods are thriving with intergenerational wealth.

Much like the flooding issue, we can also measure the difference in temperature. Grist recently published a video explaining why redlined neighborhoods are now hotter, using Portland as an example. The data is based on a study published earlier this year, which looked at 108 urban areas and found that 94% of redlined areas were hotter than their non-redlined neighbors by as much as 7°C, with an average difference of 2.6°C (roughly 12.6°F and 4.7°F respectively.)

So, because of the explicit and intentional racism of 20th century US housing policy, Black and other deliberately marginalized communities around the country are already exceeding the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit warming to a manageable level. Add on to that the fact that heat waves are getting more common and severe, and the fact that these communities are the least likely to be able to afford air-conditioning that can be the difference between life and death in prolonged extreme events. You can also see that it’s the people who did the least to cause the problem, with the fewest resources to adapt to it, who face its most extreme conditions and pay the price with their lives.

Similarly, writing in Prism, Neesha Powell-Twagirumukiza recently explored what that’s meant for Brunswick, Georgia, the home of Ahmaud Arbery before his murder (Ahmaud Arbery’s Georgia home town is now 96% white (the black folk got moved to a superfund site)).

Brunswick has four Superfund sites, and another 15 hazardous sites, all within a one-mile radius of communities of color. The predominately white island next door, St. Simons, has zero such sites.

Because these problems are so easily documented, there’s no reason not to incorporate them into climate solutions. For example, E&E published a story last week by Kristi Swartz that doesn’t specifically call out redlining, but does address the role that “segregationist history, land use and city planning” has played in the current disparity in how much people pay for electricity.

But because utilities have all the data on who most needs help, “we know where the gap is, so we know where to prioritize,” Chandra Farley of the Partnership for Southern Equity told Swartz.

Just making a point, then, to look at the areas that have been traditionally been left behind and making sure they’re getting caught up, is the start.

But solving the climate crisis is also going to mean restructuring our cities to more robustly undo the segregating damage of redlining. One of the ways that this will happen is through changes to zoning and development, with more walking and less reliance on cars.

And this is really where green aims will run into red lines, because even some (white) self-described environmentalists, like the one featured on last Wednesday’s All Things Considered, harbor deeply segregationist views that oppose exactly the sort of multi-family housing zoning changes that would address both climate change and redlining.

With lawns that often require fossil-fueled maintenance, pesticides and herbicides, heating- and air-conditioning- intensive single family homes, miles away from grocery stores and jobs and therefore only accessible by private cars, the historically white suburbs and exurbs are key climate culprits that also happen to be home to many concerned about climate change.

Whether that suburban lifestyle is more important than the climate is a decision policymakers face, and unfortunately, racism has a huge head start in making sure that doesn’t happen.

(Crossposted with DailyKos.)

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