You don’t notice climate change, until you do

Isn’t it better to be prepared rather than wait until it’s in your face?

People gather at a gas station in New Orleans in August after the city was battered by Hurricane Ida. An EPA analysis found that racial minorities and low-income whites were least likely to quickly recover from weather events.  (Brandon Bell/CQ Roll Call file photo)
People gather at a gas station in New Orleans in August after the city was battered by Hurricane Ida. An EPA analysis found that racial minorities and low-income whites were least likely to quickly recover from weather events. (Brandon Bell/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 20, 2022 at 6:00am

Though you’d hardly call me a skier, a skiing fan or a more than casual follower of the sport, even I have heard of American champion and Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn. So, I paused to listen when she plugged her new memoir on NPR. What kept my attention were her reflections on how climate change has shifted her sport in — when you think about it — predictable ways.

“It’s been so difficult the last few years to hold the entire World Cup schedule. A lot of the races that we have are a bit lower in altitude, and those races have been canceled more often than not,” she said. “The glaciers that I grew up skiing on in Austria and places like that are essentially gone. It’s incredibly sad, and global warming is something that’s very real for the world. And I feel like in the grand scheme of things, our sport doesn’t really matter in that way, but we see it firsthand.”

From fires out West that destroy cities in the blink of an eye to a record number of deadly tornadoes in the last month of last year, few areas of the globe have been spared. According to research released last year in the journal Nature Climate Change, at least 85 percent of the global population has experienced weather events made worse by climate change. And climate effects in other places can reach America’s shores.

However, as with most issues, including those based on science, there is a partisan divide when it comes to belief in the seriousness of the problem and what, if anything, needs to be done about it.

How serious?

Washington Post-ABC News poll from late last year found that while a majority of Americans — 67 percent — said warming is serious, that number hasn’t really budged from what it was seven years ago. In the survey, the number for Democrats (85 percent) had risen and for Republicans (39 percent) had fallen in that time.

Remember, President Donald Trump stalled environmental rules and withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement. The U.S. has since rejoined the agreement under President Joe Biden, who has committed resources to what he has called a “global, existential crisis.” But his domestic actions have seen successes and setbacks.

The American Rescue Plan, enacted early into his administration, invests in mass transportation systems, a step toward reducing reliance on greenhouse gas emissions. The bipartisan infrastructure law contains money to, for example, aid communities vulnerable to climate-related disasters, invest in clean energy and build a national network of electric car charging stations.

But it’s the Build Back Better package that would bring the country closer to Biden’s 2030 goals for reducing the country’s global warming emissions. And that, as everyone knows, is still locked in debate in the Senate.

Perhaps trimming the bill in negotiations would mean progress and some support, not just from Republicans but also from reluctant Democrats, such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has balked at the size of the climate provisions. Or maybe enacting executive orders and including climate actions in the agenda at the EPA and Department of Energy could fill in some of the blanks.

The new year has already seen Senate hearings on issues concerning climate change and clean energy, including questioning Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell on climate-related financial risks.

But any remaking of climate policy would be less ambitious than many experts say is necessary as global temperatures continue to rise and set records each year.

Bearing the brunt

As usual, the Americans most concerned are those with the most at stake. That would mean minority communities and citizens, who bear the brunt of the effects of climate disasters and all sorts of collateral damage, such as higher-than-average rates of asthma and other respiratory conditions caused by pollution from coal-fired power plants placed disproportionately in their neighborhoods. A legacy of racist housing policies have resulted in neighborhoods with fewer trees, areas that are hotter — and therefore more dangerous to its residents.

It makes sense that in the Washington Post-ABC News poll, Black Americans were most aware and most alarmed.

After Hurricane Ida ripped through Louisiana and Mississippi late last summer, an EPA analysis found that racial minorities and low-income whites suffered the worst health and environmental effects of a warming planet. And they are least likely to quickly recover from weather events, from heat waves to floods.

Last year, on my “Equal Time” podcast, I spoke with Chrishelle Palay, who runs the Houston-based HOME Coalition, which advocates equitable recovery from natural disasters, after the Texas winter freeze. She explained that households most in need in many cases had still not recovered from Hurricane Harvey some three years earlier.

That past did not bode well for the country’s climate future.

Unfortunately, it seems the concerns of residents of those disproportionately affected communities are as likely to make the headlines as polar bears searching for food and a place to live before they disappear altogether.

I admit to wringing my hands over voting rights above all else this week of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s solemn holiday. 

But thinking of one thing at a time is not the example King set, and there is little doubt that the leader who went to Memphis in 1968 to advocate equal pay and safe working conditions for sanitation workers was a believer in “environmental justice” before it had a name. 

And isn’t it better to be aware and prepared to act than to ignore the effects of climate change until it’s in your face or on the mountain range where you go to work?

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.