Climate change is putting people of color at risk, and this is very bad news for everyone. The very sobering second volume of the fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) was released a few days ago by the US government. The report is a congressionally-mandated assessment of climate impacts and created in collaboration between 300+ scientists and 13 government agencies, reiterates the consensus among the scientific community that climate change is real, caused by humans, and that we are at risk of very serious consequences for the livability of our planet if action is not taken now.
For the first time, the National Climate Assessment estimates the significant costs that present and future climate change will continue to impose on the U.S. economy and infrastructure, as well as on human health and well-being. As mean annual temperatures across the contiguous United States have risen by 1.8°F since the start of the previous century, climate-related events such as floods, precipitation, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and wildfires have increased in frequency and ferocity. Today, climate change is damaging the infrastructure vital to our economy for transportation, electricity, communications, water, and food production—and will continue to put it at risk.
The report also finds that climate change affects our workforce in very real ways—it affects you, me, our families, our neighbors. Across urban and rural areas of the country, people are feeling the impacts of climate change on their health and livelihoods. These impacts, however, are not equally distributed. Across the planet, existing socio-economic inequalities combined with climate change are increasing risks to vulnerable populations, and the U.S. is no exception. Communities already overburdened with unsafe environmental conditions are both disproportionately affected by, and less resilient to, climate change. Among the most vulnerable communities are children, people of color, those who live in poverty, or the intersection of all these sub-populations. We should all care about this because vulnerable communities are often the ones that grow our food, build our cities, drive goods around the country – they keep the world moving. Their contribution to society is vital.
Take for example the case of Latinos, who are among the most vulnerable groups. My colleagues at NRDC and I reported some time ago that geography, occupation, and socio-economic disparities make Latinos particularly vulnerable to climate-related threats. Just four states facing climate-fueled wildfires, extreme heat, sea-level rise, and hurricanes—California, Florida, New York, and Texas—account for 60 percent of the U.S. Latino population. Lower rates of access to health care, along with immigration status preventing many from getting disaster assistance, blocks off critical ways to prevent adverse health outcomes or recover from weather-related disasters. In addition to Latinos living mostly in cities where air pollution and extreme heat episodes are increasingly severe, overrepresentation of Latinos in agricultural work and other outdoor occupations exposes them not only to extreme heat but also to economic hardships from reduced crop yields – a key impact on agriculture in rural parts of the country according to the National Climate Assessment.
In states with large African-American populations like Maryland and Georgia, a similar analysis applies to these communities. They are overrepresented in agricultural and other outdoor occupations, they live in areas with increased air pollution—experiencing worse air pollution-related health outcomes than the general population—and they often face barriers to accessing disaster assistance.
Climate change and demographic trends suggest that Latinos and other communities of color in the U.S. will play a more critical role in our economy as aging people retire, while simultaneously bearing more climate risks.
Who is replacing the retiring Baby Boomer workforce?
Demographic trends show that Baby Boomers (those born in the immediate post-World War II period up to the mid-1960s) are exiting the workforce as they approach retirement age. A recent study of the contribution of Latinos to U.S. economic growth shows that the young (ages 16-24) Latino population is entering the civilian workforce at twice the rate of non-Latinos in the same age group, adding much needed productivity vital to the gross domestic production (GDP), but also to social services (e.g., Social Security) that are increasingly tapped by retiring Boomers. What’s more striking is that Latinos across all working age groups (young, mature, and elderly) made up 70 percent of the increase in the U.S workforce in 2010-2015 (see Figure 4 in the report). But the non-factual notion that Latinos occupy just construction and other low-income occupations is easily refuted. As Latinos have recently made gains in educational achievement in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), their prospects for increasing wealth and contributing more to the GDP is increasing (fun sidenote: see this list of the accomplishments of Latina scientists!). Although Latinos lag behind in elected official representation (just one percent of nearly half a million elected officials is Latino) in 2017 the number of Latinos in office went up by nearly 10 percent.
Besides dispelling the false and often prejudiced notion that Latinos and other immigrants impose an economic a burden on the country (we actually contribute to the economy and to science quite a bit!), this makes me think that investing in the young workforce of color now to make it more climate resilient can be one strong safeguard against the catastrophic economic impacts that the NCA is warning about.
What’s the link between the growing, young workforce of color and climate change? Given that Latinos, along with other groups of color will continue to become a larger share of our workforce, and are more at risk than others to be seriously affected by the impacts of climate change, it is critical that as a society we invest to make them an economically-secure, healthy, and resilient workforce. The success of the Boomer generation was due in part to the availability of good jobs and access to housing, technology, transportation, and consumer credit, which in turn was made possible by society-wide investments during the postwar economic boom that the country experienced. That was more than 50 years ago, and we live in a much different world today, but history has shown that investing in the workforce that will continue to create much of the wealth for the country is a winning proposition – one that is part of the solution to our climate crisis.
If we protect and invest in the groups that are bearing the brunt of climate impacts, we’re investing in a healthy, resilient workforce for the future, and as a consequence, we’re investing in our collective well-being.
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