Mountains of research show that in Boston and other American cities, poor and working class people of color are disproportionately harmed by climate change and pollution. That inequality is by design, but can begin to be undone if the city prioritizes justice in its environmental and climate plans, according to a new report.
“During the next three decades, Boston will adopt numerous policies and practices and invest billions of dollars to achieve climate resilience and transition to a decarbonized economy,” the assessment says. “What they decide can ensure that racial equity is advanced as Boston pursues its climate goals. Or it can exacerbate and perpetuate inequities.”
The report was issued recently by the Boston Green Ribbon Commission — a group of business, institutional, and civic leaders working to address climate change — alongside Embrace Boston, a racial justice nonprofit established by the Boston Foundation in 2017. It looks back at dozens of previous studies to detail the history of environmental injustice in the city and offers ideas for how to undo the harms.
“None of this is new material,” said Amy Longsworth, director of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission. “But what we wanted to do was consolidate it in a short format that would be digestible.”
A history of racist policy choices, such as redlining (the government-led practice beginning in the 1930s of denying people of color home loans and insurance and labeling their neighborhoods “hazardous” to real estate investors) and a persistent lack of investment in majority people of color neighborhoods have left Black and brown Bostonians disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation, the report says.
For instance, Boston neighborhoods that are home to communities of color — including formerly redlined ones — have less greenery and fewer trees than more affluent, white neighborhoods, the authors write. This can increase vulnerability to extreme heat as abundant concrete and asphalt soak up the sun’s rays and radiate heat due to a lack of shade.
“It’s just crazy,” said Longsworth, “to look at the temperature differentials during the day between Chinatown and the reservoir in Brookline.” Studies show Chinatown is the city’s hottest neighborhood, with temperatures during heat waves as much as 10 degrees higher than other Boston neighborhoods.
Some low-income neighborhoods and those with people of color as a majority also have limited access to health care and grocery stores, the report says. In recent years, two census tracts in West Roxbury and East Boston officially met federal standards for “food deserts,” areas that have limited access to a grocery store or other healthy, affordable food retail outlets. Many low-income people of color also live near few hospitals and health clinics, the authors say.
As a result, during flooding events that disrupt access to roads and transit, which are becoming more common amid the climate crisis, residents can be cut off from obtaining medicine and food, the assessment says.
People of color in cities like Boston are also disproportionately likely to have low incomes, leaving them less able to economically handle property damage, halted public transit, and days off work amid extreme weather events.
Low-income Bostonians also pay twice as much of their household income toward utilities, compared to the average household; for very poor households, the energy burden is four times as great, rising to as much as 12 percent of household income, the report says, citing Census Bureau Data. That’s especially concerning during extreme weather events like cold snaps or heat waves.
The report is not simply meant to inspire shame, said Duncan Remage-Healey, director of advancement and external affairs at Embrace Boston. It also outlines ways to bring about change.
“Hopefully a report like this calls people in, as opposed to continuing to just wave a finger,” he said.
The authors suggest prioritizing vulnerable populations, including communities of color, when investing in climate resilience. For instance, Boston has completed coastal resilience plans for the five neighborhoods most at risk from sea level rise and coastal flooding, including more than 100 potential projects, and must choose which projects to move on first.
“Partly they have to be prioritized based on [where there are] the biggest, hairiest, scariest risks,” said Longsworth, of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission. But beyond that, officials could prioritize neighborhoods where there has been a history of under-investment, she said.
Another opportunity: prioritizing low-income people and people of color for climate-friendly technologies, weatherization, and retrofits. These projects can lower energy costs, make homes more comfortable in extreme weather, and improve indoor air quality, while also increasing the value of properties.
“Who has access to the kind of capital to buy solar panels or electric car infrastructure or heat pumps?” said Remage-Healey, adding that even with federal subsidies for those technologies, they can be out of reach for those lacking generational wealth. “Let’s prioritize figuring out how to make those benefits available to folks who don’t have the capital to invest in them.”
Climate plans will also create business opportunities and jobs, which the report says officials and the private sector should be sure to distribute fairly.
Beyond specific recommendations, the authors encourage city officials and businesses to generally track climate equity to ensure they’re making progress. And they encourage advocacy groups, universities, and other large organizations to focus specifically on climate justice, too, using this report to launch a discussion.
“Take it from here,” Longsworth said. “Do more research.”
The Rev. Vernon Walker, a program director at Massachusetts-based nonprofit Communities Responding to Extreme Weather, praised the report.
“Racial justice and climate justice are inextricably linked. Communities of color are disproportionately harmed by racial injustice and climate injustice,” he said. “We certainly do need more investment in climate resiliency in environmental justice communities as extreme weather is a threat to people and infrastructure, and I am delighted that this report mentions that.”