Proceedings of a Webinar
Perspectives on Climate and Environmental Justice on the U.S. Gulf Coast
Proceedings of a Webinar—in Brief
Communities along the Gulf Coast routinely experience intense weather events. Acute and repetitive shocks—illustrated by the multiple Gulf regional hurricane landfalls during the 2020 hurricane season—have a disproportionate impact on communities in this region that are already burdened by chronic stressors such as systemic and structural racism,1 poverty, environmental degradation, and health disparities. Climate change threatens to exacerbate the severity of these impacts as disadvantaged and underserved communities fall further behind in their ability to prepare for, respond to, mitigate, or recover from disasters.
On June 24, 2021, the Gulf Research Program (GRP) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a panel of three members of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC)2 to discuss steps that are being taken or that need to occur to advance climate and environmental justice3 for those who call the Gulf of Mexico region home. The panelists discussed opportunities to equitably improve conditions in the Gulf of Mexico region, particularly within Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. This event provided important perspective, though much work remains to elevate and examine the climate and environmental justice priorities of diverse BIPOC communities, particularly Indigenous people, and to identify the mechanisms necessary to implement the recommendations offered by the panel members. A summary of the discussion is provided below.
WELCOME AND OPENING REMARKS
Alonzo Plough, Chief Science Officer and Vice President, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Co-Chair of the Gulf Health and Resilience Board (GHRB), opened the session by introducing the work of the GRP, which seeks to enhance offshore energy safety, environmental protection and stewardship, and human health and community resilience in the Gulf of Mexico. The GRP’s GHRB works to advance the research and practice of health and resilience utilizing the social determinants of health4 framework to improve the health, well-being, and resilience of communities in the Gulf of Mexico region.5 Plough noted that across the nation, systemic social, economic, and environmental inequalities are being
1 The Aspen Institute defines structural racism as “a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity.” See https://www.aspeninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/files/content/docs/rcc/RCC-Structural-Racism-Glossary.pdf for more information.
2 The WHEJAC was established in January 2021 and tasked with increasing the federal government’s efforts to address environmental injustice. See https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/white-house-environmental-justice-advisory-council#whejacoverview for more information.
3 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as, “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys: The same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.” See https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice for more information.
4 Social determinants of health are the “conditions of the environments in which people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.” See https://www.nationalacademies.org/ghrb/about#sl-three-columns-be3602f2-d8eb-47f5-90df-0f5acdbeadbb.
5 For more information, see https://www.nationalacademies.org/ghrb/about#sl-three-columns-be3602f2-d8eb-47f5-90df-0f5acdbeadbb.
exacerbated by climate change and inequitable recovery from disasters; BIPOC communities are and will continue to be disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change and other disasters.
Plough noted that two major events occurred in 2020 that led to the widespread recognition of disparities and structural racism that People of Color experience daily in the United States: the COVID-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 highlighted the health disparities experienced by communities of color, leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to declare racism a serious public health threat. Plough described structural racism as the normalization and legitimization of racism through multiple pathways and dynamics, including history, cultural and institutional practices, and politics, that advantage White people and result in cumulative and chronic adverse life conditions and health disparities for BIPOC communities. Plough asserted that to improve health equity, we must address these complex causes of structural racism.
The panelists are three leading voices of the environmental justice movement with deep roots in the Gulf region. As Plough noted, all three panelists have recognized that “to have environmental justice, we must confront structural racism.” As members of the WHEJAC, they are working to build an equitable future for some of the most marginalized communities in the country.
Halle Parker, Journalist, Times-Picayune and The New Orleans Advocate, moderated the discussion. Parker noted that as a journalist she works to elevate health and environmental issues that affect BIPOC communities living along the Gulf Coast. Parker commented that the environmental concerns of these communities are often ignored, and that she and others are working to amplify their voices to ensure these communities are heard. Parker introduced the panelists and moderated the discussion around several key themes.
CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENTAL INEQUITIES: RISK IS NOT EQUALLY SHARED, IMPACT IS DISPROPORTIONATE, AND RECOVERY IS INEQUITABLE
Parker introduced the discussion by asking the panelists to describe daily stressors facing environmental justice communities and how disasters and climate change have a disproportionate impact on BIPOC communities. Beverly Wright, Founder and Executive Director, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and Co-Chair, National Black Environmental Justice Network, said that based on her decades of experience working in places including Cancer Alley,6 communities have been devastated by the significant environmental challenges they are facing. For example, she described a community surrounded by petrochemical plants that flare gas at night; where residents experience regular nosebleeds and headaches; and where some are diagnosed with rare cancers. These communities do not feel as though politicians and regulators are protecting them or that doctors are recognizing that their health conditions are connected to pollution and poor environmental quality.
Climate change has driven many environmental changes that have disproportionately impacted BIPOC and low-income communities in the Gulf region. Wright discussed communities in the Gulf region located near landfills where homes are regularly flooded and exposed to contaminants. These communities often do not have flood insurance because they do not live in a designated flood zone and many do not have access to financial resources to address contamination in their homes as a result of this flooding.
COVID-19 has also devastated these communities, and climate change has exacerbated mortality and morbidity in areas already disproportionately impacted by the infection. Wright described a small community in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, where COVID-19 infection and death rates were high and linked to higher air pollution. The combination of COVID-19, particulate matter 2.5, lack of health care, and poverty has devastated some of the smaller communities in the Gulf region.
Catherine Coleman Flowers, Founder, Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, added that COVID-19 has magnified the inequities in poorer and marginalized communities along the Gulf Coast. She highlighted
6 Cancer Alley refers to an area that runs along the Mississippi River in Louisiana from Baton Rouge to New Orleans where more than 150 petrochemical plants and refineries are located in proximity to majority BIPOC communities. From Castellon, I.G. 2021. Cancer Alley and the fight against environmental racism. Villanova Environmental Law Journal 32(1):15–29. https://digitalcommons.law.villanova.edu/elj/vol32/iss1/2.
Lowndes County, Alabama, which has experienced the highest death and infection rate in the state.
BIPOC communities in Alabama are disproportionately impacted by climate change. For example, Flowers has observed that BIPOC communities historically underserved by failing and inadequate infrastructure are experiencing more flooding due to climate change. Flowers noted that many areas that never flooded in the past are now flooding. Despite flood damage, these communities continue to rebuild homes that are not structurally sound in flood vulnerable areas. BIPOC communities are also more likely to live in mobile homes and Flowers stated that research has indicated a higher likelihood of developing asthma among individuals who live in mobile homes. In addition to respiratory issues, there has also been an increase in the number of people suffering from tropical diseases.7 For example, in Lowndes County, cases of hookworm and other tropical parasites are indicators of extreme poverty and related to climate change. There is a need for greater focus on the health and infrastructure of communities of color throughout the region, Flowers said.
Parker commented that given the impact of climate change on communities of color in the Gulf region, there is a need for more careful infrastructure planning for these communities. Flowers added that racial covenants and zoning practices are being played out repeatedly in policy decisions that determine infrastructure investments and distribution of resources. Those who live on higher ground and have access to flood insurance and health care are not experiencing the issues faced by many communities of color. As climate change becomes a reality for more people, Gulf communities that are already deeply affected will serve as the canary in the coal mine, Flowers said.
UNDERSTANDING AND ADDRESSING COMPOUNDING DISASTERS AND THE DISPROPORTIONATE IMPACTS OF STRESSORS ON ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE COMMUNITIES
Parker stated that more than 1.5 years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many Gulf communities are still reeling from a historic 2020 hurricane season8 and Winter Storm Uri.9 These events, individually and collectively, have put into stark relief the disparities endured by BIPOC communities. Parker asked the panelists to share lessons and identify actions needed to prevent these communities from falling further behind in the face of compounding impacts of chronic stressors such as environmental hazards and poverty, prolonged events such as disease outbreaks, and extreme weather events.
Robert Bullard, Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University, and Co-Chair, National Black Environmental Justice Network, said that it is important that we understand the impact of converging, multiple threats to BIPOC communities, including how those threats are distributed. Bullard stated that the underlying challenge is systemic and structural racism, which is baked into policy making and decision making, and determines the flow of resources into communities. COVID-19 has illuminated the disparities Bullard and others have been working on for the past 40 years, including inequities in housing, employment, education, infrastructure, transportation, energy, food and water security, and health. Poor people and People of Color lack adequate access to these resources. The best predictor of health and well-being is zip code and not all zip codes are created equal, Bullard stated. The built environment and human health are inextricably linked—and structural racism must be addressed to make progress in improving the health in under-resourced BIPOC communities.
The historical legacy of redlining and other unjust race-based policies gave rise to the civil rights movement, and subsequently to the environmental justice movement. With the current focus on racial injustice in the United States, there is now a stronger push to address the inequities in housing, health, energy, economic development, and environmental policies. Bullard asserted that there is also an intergenerational focus
7 For additional information, see McKenna, M. L., S. McAtee, P.E. Bryan, R. Jeun, T. Ward, J. Kraus, M.E. Bottazzi, P.J. Hotez, C.C. Flowers, and R. Mejia. 2017. Human intestinal parasite burden and poor sanitation in rural Alabama. American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 97(5):1623–1628. doi: 10.4269/ajtmh.17-0396. Erratum in American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 98(3):936. PMID: 29016326; PMCID: PMC5817782.
8 The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season set a new record for the most named storms in a season: 30. Of these storms, 12 made landfall on the continental United States, including 5 in Louisiana. See https://www.noaa.gov/media-release/record-breaking-atlantic-hurricane-season-draws-to-end.
9 Winter Storm Uri affected southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana beginning February 13, 2021. The event caused widespread and prolonged power outages and is attributed with the deaths of more than 100 people and an estimated $295 billion in damage. See https://uh.edu/news-events/stories/2021/march-2021/03292021-hobby-winter-storm.php.
on justice issues that will continue to drive change; younger generations are working for long-term change. Empowering and elevating the voices of BIPOC communities on these issues is critical. As Bullard noted, “there is no climate or environmental justice without racial justice.”
Parker asked how communities are coping and what resources and services are needed to support “just recovery” from disasters, particularly long-term recovery needs, including mental health and well-being. In an assessment of disaster response and recovery over eight decades, Bullard found that the distribution of recovery resources in Black communities is disparate.10 The pattern of recovery has been that money follows money; money follows power; and money follows Whites, Bullard said.
Flowers reinforced this point, adding that when she visited the Gulf Coast of Alabama after Hurricane Katrina, those living in poorer communities who were promised money to raise their homes out of the floodplain never received financial assistance; they ended up living in the same homes, which were contaminated with mold and mildew from the flooding. Other communities were told to temporarily relocate to mobile homes, but never received funds to allow them to move back to their vacated homes. Flowers stated, “the help did not come.” To have a just recovery, Flowers noted, “the rules need to change.”
“Systemic racism has driven all of the inequities we see in our society,” Wright said. Housing programs, such as those through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), demonstrate that despite good intentions, Black homeowners continue to lose out. HUD funds have not been distributed to Black communities to create more homeownership. The Road Home Program, a federally funded grant program designed to help Louisiana residents rebuild or sell houses severely damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, did not benefit some of the most severely impacted BIPOC communities. The formula used to determine funding levels was not corrected for systemic racism, Wright added. To move forward in making these communities more resilient, we need an analysis of these and other programs through an equity lens along with further investigation of the impact that related laws and regulations have on these communities.
Bullard cited a 2019 study produced by Rice University that found that of $10 billion in recovery dollars to address severe weather events, households in White communities were $126,000 better off than before the storm, while households in communities of color were $29,000 worse off.11 Similarly, an examination of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) buyouts indicated that White communities benefited; 85% of the buyouts that FEMA executed were for Whites, even though they make up 62% of the population.12 A 2019 study examining $40,000 in voluntary buyouts at the county level also tended to favor counties with higher populations and incomes. Even FEMA’s own report shows disaster funds are not reaching those most in need.13 Poor renters and homeowners are being left behind. Similarly, in a study of recovery funding distributed after Hurricane Harvey, neighborhoods mainly inhabited by People of Color were less likely to receive recovery dollars, including in Harris County, which was hit the hardest.14
10 Bullard, R.D., and B. Wright. 2012. The wrong complexion for protection: How the government response to disaster endangers African American communities. New York: NYU Press. https://nyupress.org/9780814799932/the-wrong-complexion-for-protection.
11 Howell, J., and J.R. Elliott. 2019. Damages done: The longitudinal impacts of natural hazards on wealth inequality in the United States. Social Problems 66(3):448–467. https://doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spy016.
12 Benincasa, R. 2019. Search the thousands of disaster buyouts FEMA didn’t want you to see. NPR Investigations. https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/696995788/search-the-thousands-of-disaster-buyouts-fema-didnt-want-you-to-see.
13 FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). 2020. National Advisory Council Report. https://www.fema.gov/sites/default/files/documents/fema_nac-report_11-2020.pdf.
14 Billings, S.B., E. Gallagher, and L. Ricketts, 2021. Let the rich be flooded: The distribution of financial aid and distress after Hurricane Harvey. https://ssrn.com/abstract=3396611 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3396611.
STRENGTHENING THE FOUNDATION FOR SUSTAINABLE PROGRESS AND CHANGE THROUGH SCIENCE, DATA, ADDITIONAL RESOURCES, AND COMMUNITY AND UNIVERSITY PARTNERSHIPS
Parker asked the panelists to discuss their thoughts on the role of science and data in driving change and improving environmental conditions in BIPOC communities. Wright noted that participant observation and community-based participatory research were important aspects of data collection and research driving change on environmental issues since the 1990s. Her research during this time included recording the number of fenceline communities that directly bordered or were in close proximity to pollution sources. This analysis, which found that most of these were BIPOC communities, resulted in a long-term partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on environmental justice issues as well as the definition of an “overburdened community.”15 The analysis also produced the first GIS map of the spatial distribution by race and income to toxic release inventory facilities in the Gulf region. Wright added that resources are needed to support research programs on environmental justice for these communities.
Bullard reinforced the importance of university-based environmental justice centers in serving as the foundation for research on issues around the environment, health, and land use. He noted that it is not coincidence that the first environmental justice centers were located at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Researchers at HBCUs are closely aligned and have developed strong relationships with BIPOC communities. Related to climate, the HBCU Climate Change Consortium16 was created to raise awareness about the disproportionate impacts of climate change on overburdened communities and to develop HBCU students, leaders, scientists, and advocates on issues related to environmental and climate justice policies, community resilience, adaptation, and other major climate change topics—especially in vulnerable communities in the South. This consortium is working directly with these communities. One sentiment of these communities is that “we are not leaving it to other people to decide what is best for us because we have lived experience with climate change and its impact on our environment.” People of Color are greatly concerned about climate change, Bullard added.
Wright added that she has long-standing relationships with predominantly White universities but noted that “there is a need to see investment in HBCUs that have a proven track record and contribution to science.” Wright asserted that higher education is unfairly biased toward predominantly White universities. “The country would benefit from having more Black women involved in science and social science,” she added. Wright explained that the WHEJAC is examining how federal funds can be allocated differently to reach the people and organizations who need it most, including HBCUs.17
Many environmental justice communities are under-resourced and lack access to the expertise of scientists, researchers, and advocacy organizations, noted Parker. She asked the panelists to discuss how capacity can be built to address the impact of climate and environmental hazards in at-risk communities. Flowers responded that fostering university partnerships has been key to elevating work around environmental justice issues in under-resourced Gulf communities. However, these partnerships must be built on trust. Without this trust, there is the potential to perpetuate inequities. Genuine and consistent community engagement is the key.
MOVING THE NEEDLE ON CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE THROUGH POLICY CHANGE AND LOCAL COLLABORATION
With concerted activity at the federal level and environmental justice at the center of numerous executive orders and agency initiatives, Parker asked the panelists to discuss their aspirations for the WHEJAC. Flowers discussed her hope that the WHEJAC would work to develop guardrails against perpetuating the environmental justice problems of the past. For example, the challenges that some BIPOC communities are facing relate directly to inadequate sanitation infrastructure. Climate change is worsening these problems in communities, such as Montgomery, Alabama, where predominantly Black communities remain on onsite septic systems while other communities with more resources have offsite wastewater treatment systems. Flowers explained that when there is a major storm, septic systems are more prone to flooding, causing sewage to run back into the homes and exposing residents to illness. Flowers also noted that too often contractors receive federal funds to install inadequate infrastructure in communities that ends up leaving
15 EPA defines an “overburdened community” as a “minority, low-income, tribal, or indigenous populations or geographic locations in the United States that potentially experience disproportionate environmental harms and risks.”
16 For more information about the HBCU Climate Change Consortium, see https://www.dscej.org/our-work/hbcu-climate-change-consortium.
17 The WHEJAC recommends expanded federal investment in programs that support Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and Asian American and Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AAPISIs). See https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2021-05/documents/whiteh2.pdf.
communities just as disadvantaged as they were before. Flowers asserted that guardrails are needed to prevent contractors who have installed flawed infrastructure in BIPOC communities from receiving federal funds to do this work.
Bullard added that it is important for local grassroots organizations to position themselves to leverage new opportunities that emerge from environmental justice–related changes in federal policy. He stressed that communities need to be able to speak for themselves and develop partnerships, such as those with the HBCU Climate Change Consortium and other local climate change initiatives, to advance their goals. Environmental justice centers and institutional consortia can assist and support community-based organizations. Bullard cited his work with the African American Mayors Association18 as an example of how local governments that may not have the deep understanding and technical expertise to address the climate and environmental justice needs of communities can become more informed. It is also critical to follow the federal funding, such as opportunities through EPA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and other agencies to ensure that these funds are distributed equitably. Equity and justice are written into these policies; however, leaders, including nonprofits, and elected officials need to work together to ensure that communities that need these funds are not left out. Bullard added, “We don’t want to continue to see recovery dollars being built on inequity.”
Each of the panelists provided concluding thoughts on how climate and environmental justice issues can be integrated into the collective conscience of the region and the nation.
There is a need for additional discussion about how to work together and collaborate more broadly around a movement toward climate and environmental equity and justice in the South, Flowers stated. The South offers lessons about some of the worst environmental challenges and most severe disasters in the nation. These lessons learned can inform work on these issues across the nation.
“There is something unique about the South,” Bullard added, “The South is different, the Gulf Coast is different,” and these differences mean that a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing environmental justice challenges will not work and we should not push policies that exacerbate inequities.19
Wright commented that the common theme in her decades of work on these issues is racism; without racism, many of these environmental justice issues would not have happened. The WHEJAC has provided an important opportunity to learn from others and to better understand how laws and regulations can have a negative impact on community health and well-being. Wright noted that her hope is that the WHEJAC would provide an opportunity for policy makers to learn more about how disenfranchised communities have been devalued and devastated by environmental pollution so they can move toward a more just and equitable recovery. She added, “When we take care of the least of us, we take care of all of us.”
In moving forward to address the risks and threats from climate change to BIPOC communities along the Gulf Coast, Bullard cited the need to examine the history of housing discrimination policies, including redlining, that have made it more difficult for People of Color to move inland and away from hazards. He stressed that funding is needed to support institutions, organizations, and centers that have built up decades of expertise in this area and can develop partnerships to make progress on these issues. He suggested examining success stories and partnerships that have been able to move the needle on environmental justice issues in the Gulf region.
Concluding the discussion, Plough thanked the panelists, adding that their efforts are transforming the way the nation thinks about public health.
19 Bullard cited his research documenting environmental challenges in the South. See Bullard, R.D. 2000. Dumping in Dixie: Race, class and environmental quality, 3rd edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
DISCLAIMER: This Proceedings of a Webinar—in Brief was prepared by Jennifer Saunders as a factual summary of what occurred at the webinar. The statements made are those of the rapporteur or individual webinar participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all webinar participants; the Gulf Health and Resilience Board; or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Gulf Health and Resilience Board: Christine Morris (Co-Chair), Local Initiatives Support Corporation; Alonzo Plough (Co-Chair), Robert Wood Foundation; Laura Bowie, Gulf of Mexico Alliance; Charles C. Branas, Columbia University; Flozell Daniels, Foundation for Louisiana; Lois DeBacker, The Kresge Foundation; Sandro Galea, Boston University; Davin Holen, University of Alaska Fairbanks; Thomas LaVeist, Tulane University; Marinelle Payton, Jackson State University; James Shultz, University of Miami; Jon Thaxton, Gulf Coast Community Foundation; and Ken Wisian, The University of Texas at Austin
STAFF: Daniel Burger, Senior Program Manager; Charlene Milliken, Senior Program Manager; Francisca Flores, Program Officer; Robert Gasior, Program Officer; Juan Sandoval, Senior Program Assistant/Research Assistant; Noel Walters, Research Associate
REVIEWERS: To ensure that it meets institutional standards for quality and objectivity, this Proceedings of a Webinar—in Brief was reviewed by Mashal Awais, Bayou City Waterkeeper; Patrick Barnes, BFA Environmental; and Hannah Covert, University of Pittsburgh.
SPONSOR: This webinar was supported by the Gulf Research Program.
Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Perspectives on Climate and Environmental Justice on the U.S. Gulf Coast: Proceedings of a Webinar—in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/26348.
Gulf Research Program
Copyright 2021 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.