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Ocasio-Cortez’s righteous — and accurate — anger about poverty and the environment

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) made an urgent call to address climate change during a committee hearing on March 26. (Video: Financial Services Committee)

You are probably one of the millions of people who’ve seen the clip above. It’s from a House committee hearing on Tuesday, which is not the sort of thing that often lends itself to going viral. But it features freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — which is.

The occasion was the marking up of legislation aimed at addressing homelessness. Rep. Sean P. Duffy (R-Wis.) introduced an amendment to the bill aimed not at improving it but, instead, at demonstrating how addressing climate change can increase the cost for things like housing.

“I think it’s rich that we talk about how we care about the poor, but all the while we’ll sign on to bills that dramatically increase the cost of a family to get into a home,” Duffy said, criticizing Democratic colleagues for joining Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal effort. The Green New Deal proposes a sweeping approach to combating climate change, including retrofitting existing buildings to improve energy efficiency — at great expense in the case of affordable housing, according to Duffy.

“I don’t think we should not focus on the rich, wealthy elites who will look at this and go, ‘I love it, because I’ve got big money in the bank; everyone should do this. We should all sign onto it,’ ” Duffy said. “But if you’re a poor family, just trying to make ends meet, it’s a horrible idea.”

“It’s kind of like saying, ‘I’ll sign on to the Green New Deal, but I’ll take a private jet from D.C. to California,’ ” he continued. “A private jet! Or ‘I’ll take my Uber SUV, I won’t take the train. Or I’ll go to Davos, and I’ll fly my private jet.’ The hypocrisy!”

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, asked Ocasio-Cortez whether she would like to respond. Ocasio-Cortez did.

“I am very encouraged by the sudden concern on the other side of the aisle about climate change, and it makes me feel as though our efforts have been effective,” she began, “at the very least in distancing between the dangerous strategy of climate denial, which we know is costing us lives — at least 3,000 in Puerto Rico in Hurricane Maria.”

But concerns about the environment, she continued, were hardly “elitist.”

“You want to tell people that their concern and their desire for clean air and clean water is elitist? Tell that to the kids in the South Bronx which are suffering from the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country,” she said. “Tell that to the families in Flint whose kids have — their blood is ascending in lead levels. Their brains are damaged for the rest of their lives. Call them elitist. You’re telling them that those kids are trying to get on a plane to Davos? People are dying. They are dying.

“And the response across the other side of the aisle is to introduce an amendment five minutes before a hearing in a markup?” she continued. “This is serious. This should not be a partisan issue. This is about our constituents and all of our lives. Iowa, Nebraska, broad swaths of the Midwest are drowning right now. Underwater. Farms, towns that will never be recovered and never come back."

She added: “If we tell the American public that we are more willing to invest and bail out big banks than we are willing to invest in our farmers and our urban families, then I don’t know what we’re here doing. I don’t know what we’re here doing.”

Ocasio-Cortez is addressing two points at once: the effects of air and water pollution on poorer communities; and the effects of climate change on those same communities. Both are accurate, according to scientific research.

Both globally and in the United States, poorer people are more likely to be exposed to air pollution. This makes sense: Housing in industrial areas or near major roadways is less expensive, meaning it is more accessible to low-income Americans — who are then exposed to particulates and other pollutants like nitrogen dioxide. The American Lung Association has robust documentation of this link.

Polluted water, as with the lead-tainted water in Flint, Mich., has a similarly uneven effect. Heavy industry can pollute local waterways, and smaller and poorer communities are less able to afford proper systems for filtering out contaminants.

Ocasio-Cortez also noted the flooding that has affected Iowa and Nebraska in recent weeks, flooding that bears the hallmarks of being related to the warming climate. Those floods have revealed another way in which poorer rural communities are affected by water pollution, as the Associated Press reported Wednesday: A million privately owned wells in the region are at risk of being tainted by polluted floodwaters. Well owners are responsible for doing their own decontamination once the floods recede, an expensive proposition. Flooding aside, rural areas were already more likely to be affected by water pollution.

The broader Duffy-Ocasio-Cortez debate, though, focused on climate change. There, too, Ocasio-Cortez’s arguments about the relevance of the subject to poorer communities is accurate.

In November, the U.S. government released its fourth National Climate Assessment, looking at the likely effects of the warming climate on the country. Its findings support Ocasio-Cortez’s point directly: Climate change is more problematic for poorer Americans, not less.

For example:

Multiple lines of evidence demonstrate that low-income communities and some communities of color are experiencing higher rates of exposure to adverse environmental conditions and social conditions that can reduce their resilience to the impacts of climate change. Populations with increased health and social vulnerability typically have less access to information, resources, institutions, and other factors to prepare for and avoid the health risks of climate change. Across all climate-related health risks, children, older adults, low-income communities, and some communities of color are disproportionately impacted.

Why? Disrupted access to public transportation. Disruptions to food systems. Lower ability to prepare for and deal with extreme heat or increased mosquito-borne diseases. Changes to agricultural and fishing patterns. Living in more risk-prone areas such as isolated rural regions or places with poor infrastructure.

The report also gets to Duffy’s point about the need to upgrade housing across the board. It recommends that planners consider “green gentrification” — making community upgrades that increase property values but might then drive out lower-income individuals. It warns at another point specifically about upgrading housing stock and, therefore, making it unaffordable.

One way to potentially avoid that problem is to do precisely what Duffy disparages: upgrade public housing, as well. Focusing on upgrades only where residents can pay for them means an uneven distribution of upgrades.

“If urban responses do not address social inequities and listen to the voices of vulnerable populations, they can inadvertently harm low-income and minority residents,” the National Climate Assessment reads.

“This is about our lives. This is about American lives, and it should not be partisan,” Ocasio-Cortez said Tuesday. “Science should not be partisan.”

She could point to a climate report released under President Trump to reinforce her argument.