Leaving the polluted, smog-filled skies of Delhi, my dad settled for the blue skies and greenery of South San Jose. “I would never live anywhere but California,” he says.
30 years later, I stare at the smoke-filled skies in San Jose and worry about my parents and their friends. I think about how they should sell their property in light of the wildfires edging closer and closer to their home. A new wave of air pollution and insecurity caused by the climate crisis.
Dr. Anthony LeRoy Westerling, Professor of Management of Complex Systems, UC Merced, who has led climate assessment activities for the state of California, predicted the increasing frequency of wildfires. At the Ethnic Media Services briefing on September 25th, he raised concerns about wildfires becoming a common event within the next 30 years. Santa Clara County, home to a large immigrant population – 39% Asian and 49% minority communities – is facing serious risks.
The loss of a home is the loss of the only generational wealth accumulated in this country and the dream of a better life for immigrant populations. I know it to be true for my quintessential Indian-American Family. If displaced, relocation is not simple. The security of a familial network does not necessarily exist and with COVID lurking, shelters are limited.
The loss of wealth is layered when addressing air pollution. Proper healthcare for the adverse effects of the climate crisis becomes a necessity, but is it accessible and does it account for race?
My mom coughs and shuffles around the house, tired of being stuck at home. She hasn’t left the house in 2 weeks because of her Asthma, a condition that only took hold after years in America. Since COVID began, she hasn’t gotten the care required for her severe Asthma and has to be particularly cautious. Her quality of life has declined and I don’t want this for her long-term. But she is not alone.
Communities of color are disproportionately affected by the double punch combo of health inequity and climate injustice reminds Dr. Robert Bullard, Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. In a study done by the EPA in 2018, it was found that communities of color and, black communities specifically, were exposed to 1.5 times more air particulate matter and its accompanying burden than its counterpart white communities. Adults and children from these sectors were 5-10 times more likely to develop Asthma and potentially lose their life to it.
“All communities are not created equal,” advocates Dr. Bullard, giving context to the policies that created the disparity. People of color are more likely to live in cities that are in violation of the Clean Air Act. Years of racial redlining and urban heat centers expose minority communities to a worse standard of living. The climate crisis will continue to grow the wealth gap due to governmental organizations like FEMA, that use cost-benefit analysis to allocate resources after a crisis.
Air pollution and its relationship to health equity and economic stratification is a global phenomenon. I am reminded of that when I think of Delhi’s greying atmosphere. Air pollution so thick, sunlight can’t penetrate it. Hindustan Times reports in 2017 that chronic respiratory illness is one of the leading causes of death in India. It is a cause for concern when I see those same skies in San Jose, California. Chairman of TERRE Policy Centre and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr. Rajendra Shende emphatically states, “The poor are the first line victims.” This statement has a resounding message that connects environmental injustice and inequity.
Dr. Bullard and Dr. Shende both confront the powers which create policies – people with influence and wealth. Those same people shirk their responsibility and tax those with fewer means. As the former director of the United Nations Environmental Program, Dr. Shenda is passionate about the concept of common but differentiated responsibility. “Those who consumed the most and polluted should pay for those who did not consume and did not pollute,” he says.
In California, the Cap and Trade program is working to lower carbon emissions and places the burden on the companies that rely on carbon. As recently as September 24th, Gavin Newson set the goal to ban all gas-powered vehicles by 2035. Yet, none of these are effective without global consent. Much like when the Montreal Act worked to lower Ozone layer depletion effectively, saving Delhi and San Jose is a collective effort. A developed nation and a developing nation are in the same conundrum. Environmental injustice is within communities and across countries.
Eventually, my dad in San Jose breathes the same air as his brother in Delhi…
Rely on science and vote comprehensively!
Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.
Featured Image of San Jose shot by Jamie Shin.