Joe Biden has vowed to uproot what he describes as the systemic racism that has caused certain communities “disproportionate harm from climate change and environmental contaminants for decades”.
The need for this is increasingly clear. The roots of systemic racism run so stubbornly deep in the US, recent research has revealed, that global heating harms Black and Latino children before they are even born, as well as in the first years of their lives.
“Unfortunately many children will be marked for life because of what their mothers are exposed to, affecting the brain, lungs, pancreas, everything,” said Susan Pacheco, an associate professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center who co-authored research released last summer that found that pregnant women exposed to heat and air pollution are at heightened risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes.
The analysis of dozens of medical studies found women of color, particularly Black women, and their babies are most likely to suffer low birth weights, pre-term births and stillbirths from climate-driven threats. Hot temperatures can cause strain upon women and their unborn children, while heat can also react with pollutants from cars and power plants to create ozone, a ground-level pollutant that can cause an array of health problems.
“This pollution cause placental inflammation and affects the baby,” said Pacheco. “This can cause impacts in childhood but also bad outcomes when they are adults, such as heart and kidney disease. Even what we would consider limited exposures can affect the development of the baby.”
The climate crisis is shaping the lives of Black children and children of color before they take their first breath, but it doesn’t stop there. Once a Black or Latino child is born, there is a good chance they will live in a neighborhood that gets even hotter than nearby, whiter suburbs. Researchers have found that in US cities including New York, Dallas and Miami, poorer areas with more residents of color can be get up to 20F hotter in summer than wealthier, whiter districts in the same city.
This is largely because less affluent neighborhoods of color have far fewer green spaces or tree-lined streets to provide a cool respite on scorching hot days. A young Black child will instead probably be taking their first steps in a neighborhood largely covered in paved surfaces, such as asphalt, that soaks up and radiates heat on sunny days. “Mothers here in Texas tell me they don’t know what to do because they can’t let their kids outside in summer,” said Pacheco. “The heat is relentless.”
Prolonged exposure to heat can increase levels of stress and have various impacts on the body, said Vivek Shandas, an expert in urban studies at Portland State University who co-authored a paper on how neighborhood demographics relate to city heat. “You then find the majority of people who pass away in heatwaves are communities of color,” he said. “There’s a direct relationship.”
This heat disparity between poor, Black neighborhoods and rich, white ones is no accident. Shandas and his fellow researchers found the hottest areas today overlap with places that were historically redlined – a practice dating back to the 1930s when the federal government rated the risk of of different neighborhoods for real estate development. Race played a major role, with Black areas routinely deemed “hazardous” and barred from federally backed mortgages and other investments, causing them to be deprived of amenities in comparison to green-lined white, wealthy areas.
“This means the modern experience of what your life is like is in many respects nothing to do with you, it’s down to something that happened a long time ago with acts of segregation that were codified through planning policies,” said Shandas. “These systemic biases have created landscapes of precarity for communities of color and low-income communities.”
Many young people of color growing up in such neighborhoods are unaware of the differing vulnerabilities to global heating, according to Shandas, who recounted an experiment in which high schoolers in Yonkers, New York, and Austin, Texas, were given infrared cameras that can measure temperature and asked to take pictures of their surroundings. “The students took the photos and noticed some neighborhoods were hotter than others,” Shandas said. “It showed their lived experience. It went from a climate issue to a justice issue for them.”
As the planet bakes, the situation is expected to become more extreme. Within 30 years, US counties with large Black populations will face an average of 22 more extreme heat days each year than counties with small Black populations, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists analysis.
For a young child of color, there is a little escape. At home, research has shown Black households are less than half as likely as white households to have central air conditioning. Meanwhile, at school, Black and Latino students are also suffering from the heat – a study last year of 270m exam scores of US students between the third and eighth grades found that students of color were vastly more likely than white students to experience a dip in academic performance on days when temperatures soared over 80F. More recent research has found that poor air quality, exacerbated by heat, can even affect children’s self-confidence and drive to be successful.
Historically racist planning policies and land value disparities have meant that the homes of many people of color in the US are concentrated near landfills, highways and polluting heavy industry. Black people are 75% more likely to live next to oil and gas facilities that emit large amount of pollution, including planet-warming gases.
The toxic stew that threatens young, developing bodies is formidable, ranging from formaldehyde, which has been linked to cancer, to benzene, linked to brain damage, to soot, linked to higher blood pressure. While Black children make up 16% of all US public school students, more than a quarter of them attend the schools worst affected by air pollution, one 2018 study found.
High levels of air pollution, such as the ozone spurred by increasing heat, is stoking allergies and asthma in young children of color, research has found. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “increases in asthma rates among poor minorities have been even larger than the averages”. Black children are now twice as likely to be hospitalized and four times as likely to die from asthma as white children.
The challenge for Biden, and future administrations, to address this threat will only grow as the climate crisis worsens. “It’s only a matter of time before we start seeing more and more health problems in children,” said Pacheco. “It’s going to be everywhere. This is urgent.”