The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness
The Climate 202

Air pollution still disproportionately harms communities of color, study says

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! We're still waiting to see if Congress will pass the Build Back Better Act before Christmas. More on that below. But first:

A new study found that people of color face higher exposure to six air pollutants. Biden wants to address that.

While the air in the United States has gotten cleaner since 1990, people of color are still exposed to six major air pollutants more than White people, according to research published today.

The study by University of Washington researchers, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, is one of the most comprehensive looks to date at the racial and ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure nationwide.

It comes as President Biden seeks to prioritize environmental justice by steering federal investments in clean energy toward communities that have borne the brunt of pollution for decades, including low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

“Our hope is that documenting these disparities not only provides useful information, but also provides a call to action for turning to solutions,” Julian Marshall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington and senior author of the study, told The Climate 202.

The study looked at six pollutants that can harm human health: nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and particulate matter — both larger particles such as dust (PM10) and smaller particles such as molecules from vehicle exhaust (PM2.5).

The researchers examined exposure to these pollutants in 1990, 2000 and 2010. To obtain air pollution data for each year, they relied on Environmental Protection Agency monitoring stations and satellites. The researchers then mapped this data onto four census demographic groups: Black, Asian, Hispanic and White.

Their main findings were:

  • While overall pollutant levels have dropped since 1990, when Congress amended the Clean Air Act, people of color are still more likely to be exposed to all six pollutants than White people in all 50 states and D.C.
  • In 2010, Black Americans faced the greatest exposure to PM2.5, while Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans had the greatest exposure to NO2.
  • These racial and ethnic disparities persisted even when the researchers accounted for income level distributions.

“Some people think the racial/ethnic exposure disparity may just be a reflection of income disparity. However, we found that the racial/ethnic exposure disparity was distinct from — and actually larger than — the income disparity,” Jiawen Liu, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering, told The Climate 202.

History of environmental racism

The researchers didn't identify the causes of the disparities. But a large body of academic literature shows that people of color are more likely to live near power plants, toxic waste sites, factories and other polluting facilities.

There's also growing evidence that decades of racist housing policies are to blame.

In the 1930s, the federal government engaged in a practice known as redlining. Officials created maps of U.S. cities that outlined Black and immigrant neighborhoods in red, signaling that they were risky places to make investments. Today, many of those neighborhoods are still home to large minority populations that have faced decades of disinvestment and exposure to environmental hazards.

“This doesn't shine a light on the causes, but it's things far in the past, like redlining and racial covenants,” said Marshall, the senior author of the study. “It's the racial segregation which has been present in our society forever.”

Biden's environmental justice push

Soon after taking office, Biden issued an executive order that took aim at these long-standing inequities.

The order established a government-wide Justice40 Initiative with the goal of delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of federal environmental investments to disadvantaged communities. It also created a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Robert Bullard, a member of the advisory council and a professor at Texas Southern University, told The Climate 202 that the study's findings were not surprising, given the growing body of research on environmental justice and the lived experiences of people in disadvantaged communities.

“What is surprising and disturbing,” he said, “is that our government has allowed this to continue to happen in the face of voluminous evidence pointing to these kinds of racial disparities and health disparities.”

Bullard, who is known as the “father of environmental justice” for his pioneering work on the issue, added that the study illustrates the imperative for the Biden administration to “do as much as it can within the law to focus on those communities that have been hit the hardest.”

Climate solutions

First in The Climate 202: Report finds big climate benefits from protecting natural areas

Biden's ambitious plan to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands in the next decade could prevent approximately 215 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere each year starting in 2030 — the equivalent of taking 47 million cars off the road, according to research shared exclusively with The Climate 202.

The research by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank closely aligned with the White House, illustrates the value of conserving natural areas so that they can store carbon and slow the rate of the Earth's warming.

Forests, grasslands and wetlands currently sequester 10 to 15 percent of U.S. carbon emissions each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But CAP found that as the United States loses natural areas at a rate of a football field every 30 seconds, there is a corresponding loss of 15 percent of nature's sequestration capacity each year.

CAP's report asserts that the Biden administration can achieve its 30x30 goal by preventing further nature loss, replanting forests on private lands and restoring historic fire patterns on up to 15 million acres of Western forests. Fire restoration efforts alone could reduce carbon emissions by up to 30 million metric tons annually starting in 2030, according to the analysis.

“The point we wanted to get across is that nature is a foundational piece of climate action and achieving President Biden's carbon reduction goals,” Jenny Rowland-Shea, CAP's deputy director for public lands and a co-author of the report, told The Climate 202. “And under the status quo right now, the U.S. is quietly and rapidly losing its best defense against climate change.”

CAP's research builds on a paper published yesterday in the journal Nature Communications Earth & Environment by researchers at Oregon State University. The paper identified several Western U.S. forests that could store the most carbon and safeguard the most biodiversity.

On the Hill

Senate Democrats huddled over the climate provisions in the Build Back Better Act

More than a dozen Senate Democrats met yesterday with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to discuss the status of the climate provisions in the Build Back Better Act (BBB), including some proposals that have sparked concerns from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the main architect of a fee on methane emissions in the bill, told reporters after the meeting that it was “an encouraging conversation" and that “we continue to make progress" ahead of a meeting with the Senate parliamentarian this week. Carper added that the methane fee came up during Manchin's phone call with Biden on Monday.

Other senators projected optimism while offering little new information. Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) told reporters after the meeting that “it seems like we're in pretty decent shape,” while Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said that “we're in a reasonably good place.”

Still, it appears increasingly unlikely that Democrats can pass BBB before Christmas.

Agency alert

Granholm told oil executives that an export ban is not under consideration

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm reassured oil executives that the Biden administration is not considering reinstating a ban on the export of crude oil, Bloomberg's Ari Natter reports

Biden's energy chief struck a conciliatory tone in virtual remarks to the National Petroleum Council, saying, “I do not want to fight with any of you." The White House had previously considered the move as a way to counteract rising gas prices.

Mike Sommers, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, welcomed the comments:

But environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, said the administration's stance betrayed a lack of urgency about the climate crisis:

Extreme events

Climate change has destabilized the Earth’s poles

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released 2021’s Arctic report card on Dec. 14. (Video: NOAA, Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/NOAA)

Climate change has transformed the Arctic and Antarctic, creating ripples that will affect the entire planet, The Post’s Sarah Kaplan reports.

The World Meteorological Organization yesterday confirmed a record temperature for the Arctic: 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk on June 20, 2020. The heat has been catastrophic for sea ice, which acts as Earth’s air conditioner, reflecting huge amounts of solar radiation back into space.

On the other end of the world, research shows that a crucial ice shelf in the Antarctic could collapse within three to five years, potentially causing a dramatic rise in sea levels.

Biden will visit Kentucky to survey tornado damage

Biden will travel to Kentucky today for a briefing and then to survey damage caused by the deadliest December tornado outbreak on record.

The science linking tornadoes to climate change is not as robust as the evidence linking it to wildfires or flooding, but experts say warmer temperatures could fuel more intense storms and tornadoes.

The president has been walking a fine line when discussing that connection, The Post's Sean Sullivan and Annie Linskey report. While activists see the deadly tornadoes as yet more evidence for urgent climate action, Republicans are quick to criticize any claim of a climate connection that goes beyond what is verifiable.

“We have to be very careful — we can’t say with absolute certainty that it was because of climate change,” Biden said Monday.


If you've been following the saga of the zebras that escaped from a Maryland farm, we have some good news… 🦓

Thanks for reading!