July 8, 2023 • In the News

Can we panic now? Maybe a little freak-out would do some good.

Last week saw the hottest days ever recorded on Earth. Our continued addiction to heat-trapping emissions and the return of weather pattern El Niño have given us record-shattering air and water temperatures, alarming ice melt in Antarctica, and dangerous heat for tens of millions of people across the planet.

We’re all in hot water here. But some of us are deeper than others.

Of all the impacts of climate change, extreme heat falls upon us most unevenly. Those who live in urban heat islands — Chinatown, Dorchester, East Boston, Mattapan, and Roxbury in Boston, for example, or the neighborhoods by the Chelsea Creek in Chelsea — endure hotter temperatures than those who live in more leafy places.

Heat kills more people in the United States than other weather events, like tornadoes and floods. It has massive public health consequences, worsening mental illnesspregnancy outcomes, and educational attainment. It causes spikes in crimesuicides, and emergency room visits.

And these consequences fall most heavily on those who can least afford them: poor and working-class people who live in neighborhoods that have seen decades of neglect, underinvestment, and racism.

Multiple studies have shown a direct link between extreme heat and redlining, the banking practice used from the 1930s to the 1960s that made it harder for mostly Black Americans in disadvantaged neighborhoods to get loans, thwarting their attempts to buy property and build generational wealth. Decades after the racist practice ended, those neighborhoods are still dealing with the consequences of being deemed unworthy of investment.

“They still have some of the worst environmental impacts,” said Roseann Bongiovanni, head of GreenRoots, a Chelsea environmental advocacy group. “They have more industry, more asphalt, less green space and tree canopy cover.”

All of that makes these neighborhoods hotter. And residents — who are also more likely to have health conditions that worsen their exposure — are less able to escape the heat with air conditioning at home, or via workplaces that keep them cool. Even with city and state governments more focused on environmental justice now, relief will come slowly.

“It takes decades for trees to come to maturity,” Bongiovanni said. “And all the other impacts, the concrete and pollution, make it more likely those trees will die.”

This is how the effects of racist policies persist long after they’ve officially ended.

That a majority of the US Supreme Court denies that very obvious fact worries environmental activists. Late last month, the court banned affirmative action in college admissions, arguing that considering race as a factor violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment — by hurting white applicants. The implications go well beyond colleges, however, opening the door for challenges to all manner of policies designed to correct the impact of racist policies like redlining, including those that prioritize environmental investments in communities of color.

A Supreme Court that has kneecapped the EPA when it comes to regulating wetlands and power plant emissions will be all too receptive to challenges to environmental justice efforts focused on communities of color.

Even before the judges issued their decision, the affirmative action case had a chilling effect. Anticipating it, the Biden administration omitted race from the factors that must be considered by federal agencies when they’re prioritizing environmental and energy investments, and it pulled back on EPA civil rights investigations into pollution that disproportionately affected communities of color.

The Supreme Court has made it more difficult for governments at all levels to target environmental and other policies to those who most need their help. At best, it will force progressive policymakers into somersaults that will allow them to prioritize communities of color without actually mentioning race.

“It’s a lot of effort to figure out how to come up with metrics that capture communities affected by the legacy of racism without naming race,” said Marcos Luna, professor of geography and sustainability at Salem State University. “It’s hard to address the elephant in the room without talking about the elephant.”

Emboldened by a willfully blind Supreme Court majority, more people in this country will now insist the elephant does not exist at all.