Connecting Alaska to the Gulf Coast and to Racial Wealth Inequality
Dr. Algernon Austin is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Global Policy Solutions. Previously, he directed the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE). As the first director of PREE, Algernon built the program over six years into a nationally-recognized source for expert reports and policy analyses on the economic condition of America’s people of color.
by Algernon Austin
This week, President Obama was in Alaska to call attention for the need for global action on climate change. Last week, he was in New Orleans commemorating the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. While Alaska is 4,000 miles away from Louisiana, both states face similar challenges from climate change. And, in both states, people of color are being hit first and the worst.
President Obama highlighted that, as a result of climate change, Alaska faces bigger storm surges and rapid shoreline erosion. The Alaska Native population is particularly at risk. The Environmental Protection Agency reports, “As climate change reduces these [Alaskan animal] species’ critical habitats, declines in their population threaten not only the livelihood of Alaska Natives, but also their cultural and social identity.” Additionally, the EPA finds, “melting sea ice has reduced natural coastal protection. In Shishmaref, Kivalina, and other Alaska Native Villages, erosion has caused homes to collapse into the sea.” Climate change is destroying Alaska Native cultural wealth and economic wealth.
The Gulf Coast, too, is experiencing rapid erosion and faces a likelihood of stronger storm surges. ProPublica reports that Louisiana is losing “a football field of land every 48 minutes.” Researchers have found that climate change will more than double the number of Katrina-strength hurricanes. Stronger hurricanes will lead to more destructive storm surges.
The disaster following Hurricane Katrina was, in part, the result of the storm surge. It also revealed the risk faced by low-income African Americans, who are less likely to own a very common household asset—a car. Because they didn’t have cars, blacks in New Orleans were less likely to be able to evacuate in advance of Hurricane Katrina.
This problem is not limited to New Orleans. Other hurricane-prone areas illustrate that blacks generally have a lower rate of automobile ownership, and therefore they are at greater risk of being left behind during evacuations. In Houston, although blacks make up about a fifth of the poor population, they make up about two fifths of the poor population lacking a vehicle. The situation is similar in Miami. Climate change will lead to stronger hurricanes and it will put more poor African Americans at risk.
People of color are hurt first and worst by climate change in Alaska, Louisiana, and everywhere in between. The little wealth that many of them have will literally fall into the sea or be blown away by a storm. Therefore, they need to push hard for an agenda that reduces carbon emissions and lessens the effects of climate change.