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Climate change affecting poorer communities disproportionately, panel finds

Brett Carlsen | Getty Images North America | AFP
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There is still time to reverse the trends, scientist says.

The poor are bearing the brunt of climate change in disproportionate ways, a panel of experts discussed during a Catholic University forum recently.

“Social Dimensions of the Climate Crisis” brought together academics and activists in a daylong symposium April 3 at the Catholic University of America. The forum was sponsored by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies and the National Catholic School of Social Service, both at Catholic University, and the Georgetown University Law Center Campus Ministry.

The disproportionate effect on low-income and minority communities from climate-related environmental disasters will get worse as global temperatures continue to rise, they said.

Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a national nonprofit science advocacy organization, said that global temperatures have risen 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, contributing to more powerful hurricanes, rising sea levels, severe forest fires, intense rainfall and a warming Arctic.

Sacoby Wilson, a professor of applied environmental health at the University of Maryland, argued that low-income and minority communities suffer from a disparity of distribution of hazardous facilities and concentration of toxic pollutants. He pointed to the lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, for example, or the toxic spills into poor neighborhoods surrounding the Houston Ship Channel following 2017’s Hurricane Harvey.

Globally, climate change is causing displacement of people at a rate never seen before, Joan Rosenhauer, executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA said.

“Climate change is now found to be the key factor accelerating all other drivers of forced displacement,” said Rosenhauer.

Take Syria, for example, whose long civil war led to a major crisis of refugees pouring into Europe. A little noticed fact is that just prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 2011, Syria experienced a five-year drought, she said.

“According to Rosenhauer, 41 people are displaced each minute somewhere in the world due to an extreme weather event,” the National Catholic Reporter reported from the symposium. “She said that the United Nations Refugee Agency estimated that nearly 250 million people worldwide will be displaced by climate change by 2050.”

But there is still time to reverse the trends. If worldwide carbon dioxide emissions decline by 40 percent to 60 percent of 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050, Caldas said, global temperature warming could be limited to 1.5 C — often considered a safer limit. She said that “a 2012 analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that if every resident of the United States reduced their carbon footprint by 20 percent, it would be the equivalent of taking 200 coal-fired power plants offline and replacing them with clean energy sources,” the Reporter said.

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