Far too many people have been threatened by droughts, wildfires, and floods due to the climate crisis. In Massachusetts, heat waves this summer have affected Black and brown communities and low-income families the most.
Due to decades of structural racism and discrimination, extreme weather is impacting our most vulnerable communities disproportionately. Low-income families and communities of color are far more likely to live in neighborhoods overburdened with toxic pollution, low-tree canopy cover, a dearth of open space, and plenty of asphalt, cement, and other impervious surfaces. These environmental stressors, compounded with housing that is less climate resilient, a lack of flood insurance, and insufficient financial means to recover from a major climate event, result in irrecoverable catastrophe. Coastal flooding of hazardous facilities as well as urban heat island impacts pose serious threats for environmental justice populations like Chelsea and East Boston, which have shouldered the disproportionate share of toxic pollution and industrial dominance at the cost of human health and environmental degradation.
Chelsea and East Boston are home to Logan Airport and its millions of gallons of jet fuel, 80 percent of the region’s home heating fuel, and road salt for more than 350 communities. They host one of the largest produce distribution warehouses in the nation, which serves most of the Eastern seaboard. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority Chelsea Creek Headworks processes raw sewage for dozens of municipalities before transferring it to Deer Island. These communities are also home to critically important bridges and tunnels that ferry thousands of vehicles daily.
And yet these communities continue to get saddled with new infrastructure and pollution, like a planned electrical substation in East Boston, rather than the green space and tree canopy cover they need and deserve. Coastal flooding, extreme heat, and hurricane-strength winds will devastate these communities if steps aren’t taken to mitigate climate change. And while the stakes are high and the crisis is urgent, there is good news. Together, our communities are making progress.
The Island End River area, which spans the waterfront in Chelsea and Everett, is home to 15,000 low-income residents — primarily people of color — as well as the New England Produce Center. Coastal flooding resulting from sea level rise — 8 inches by 2030 in the waters around Boston and as high as 3 feet by 2070 — and more frequent severe storms threaten homes, livelihoods, and critical infrastructure.
This year, members of Congress had the opportunity to request funding for up to 10 community projects. As part of the ongoing fight for racial, economic, and climate justice, we put forward a $750,000 proposal for the Island End River Regional Coastal Flood Resiliency Project, which would bring Chelsea and Everett much closer to preventing further climate-change-related disaster by advancing a project to protect the cities from coastal floods and sea level rise. We have been victorious so far: This summer, we were successful in securing this funding in an appropriations bill making its way through the House of Representatives
COVID-19 highlighted so clearly what environmental justice advocates have said for years: Vulnerable communities will be hit first and worst by disasters. Decades of structural racism have resulted in health disparities making Chelsea and East Boston some of the hardest-hit by COVID-19. However, intentional investments and partnership between community-based organizations and trusted community leaders on the ground resulted in vaccination rates in Chelsea that are equal to or exceed vaccinations statewide.
The same investments and coordination must be made to address the climate crisis. Bold climate investments at all levels of government are not optional, and they must be made now. We must finally make investments that center people over profits, and communities like Chelsea, East Boston, and other Black, brown, and predominantly immigrant neighborhoods must be prioritized.
We are running out of time to change the course of this the climate crisis, but it’s not too late. Today, we have an once-in-a-generation opportunity to act on climate change and make investments in climate infrastructure that meet the scale, scope, and urgency of the moment.
Congress cannot afford to tinker around the edges. We must advance bold infrastructure investments that support our environmental justice communities, create a nationwide Civilian Climate Corps, and invest in climate resiliency across the nation. The United States must finally end our reliance on fossil fuels and enact a just, clean transition to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy to ensure a healthier planet.
How we meet this moment will have lasting impacts, and history will remember us for it. It will determine the quality of the air our children breathe. It will determine whether we will have reliable food sources for years to come. When we organize across the spectrum of diverse lived experiences and center the most vulnerable communities, we can take on this urgent task together. We must have the courage to act boldly. There is no time to waste when so much is at stake.
US Representative Ayanna Pressley represents the Seventh Congressional District of Massachusetts. Roseann Bongiovanni is executive director of the environmental justice nonprofit GreenRoots, based in Chelsea.