A Flood of Climate Injustice

A NextGen Blog by Julia Campbell, UCLA.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Julia Campbell is a 4th-year Environmental Science major at UCLA, minoring in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. Her current research focuses on phytoplankton and paleoceanography. Julia hopes to improve her writing skills and knowledge on freshwater issues through blogging with NWNL.

Climate and environmental injustice continue to impact POC (people of color) and low-income communities across the United States. This barely visible form of systemic racism includes heightened levels of air pollution, heightened levels of water pollution, low proximity to green spaces and high proximity to toxic facilities and hazardous waste sites. In addition, countless BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, POC) communities are more often at higher risk for flooding due to sea level rise and catastrophic weather events than neighboring, predominately white communities.

Flooding Basics

Today we must address the connection between flooding and climate change. Climate change is generally the change in global or regional climate patterns largely attributed to heightened levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases and anthropogenic activity. These changes include a rise in sea level, global temperatures, extreme weather and many other consequential impacts. Sea level rise has a direct, comprehensive connection to flooding, as coasts slowly become inundated in water and communities are forced to move back orabove water level. The rise in quantity and extremity of weather events also leads to extreme flooding. More frequent and stronger hurricanes give communities less time to fully recover and weakens their resilience.

Flooded South Main Street, during Mississippi River Flood of 1993

Facts and Figures

Flooding induced by climate change offers a clear example of climate injustice. Studies repeatedly show that a disproportionate amount of BIPOC communities are hit with flooding, and are then left to deal with damages and rebuilding. In Chicago, “87% of flood assistance claims come from low-income communities of color where housing is older and denser, and the sewer system is less well-maintained.”[mfn]Dembicki, Geoff[/mfn] Given ongoing historic racism and systemic oppression, many BIPOC communities face higher higher exposure to flood hazards and reside in cities ill-equipped to handle large-scale climate disasters. Hurricane Harvey devastated the southwest area of Houston where 49% of residents were nonwhite. Hurricane Katrina’s most extensive damage hit Black neighborhoods. Of the seven zip codes that suffered the most financial damage from Katrina, four included populations that were at least 75% Black.[mfn]Frank, Thomas[/mfn] Severe storms may fall on all types of communities, but studies repeatedly establish that POC and low-income communities are least likely to fully recover.

Figure 1 – Map of Chicago drawing relationship between race and flood claims (CNT).[mfn]Center for Neighborhood Technology[/mfn]

Income is a huge determinant of financial community resilience as well. As history has shown, income and race are often intertwined. When Hurricane Katrina hit more than 30% of Black New Orleans, those residents didn’t own a car and therefore could not evacuate. After the storm, the Black population fell lower because many could not afford to return to New Orleans.[mfn]Kaplan, Sarah[/mfn] Race and income were very clearly correlated when redlining came to light. Redlining, a form of discriminatory housing policies, prevented BIPOC communities from settling in safer areas deemed “more desirable” since they were in close proximity to greenspaces or strong school districts. Thus, BIPOC communities in southern Louisiana that needed to relocate moved to areas of even higher flood risks, often with unmaintained sewer systems and aging infrastructure.

Figure 2 – Graph displaying correlation between race, income, and proximity to toxicity[mfn]Downey & Hawkins[/mfn]

Further Consequences

There is an indubitable relationship between race, income and climate catastrophes in this country. There is much work to be done to establish equity. Many activists, especially young BIPOC activists, have stepped up to start the work. An interview published by the Yale School of the Environment digs into this issue of “climate injustice.” Activist Elizabeth Yeampierre has long focused on connections between racial injustice, the environment and climate change. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the outsized impact of Covid-19 on communities of color, Yeampierre hopes people may finally be ready to listento this eye-opening interview, titled “Unequal Impact.”[mfn]Gardiner, Beth[/mfn]

A more complete study of the relationship between race, income, and flooding can be found in an, insightful research paper by Camilo Sarmiento and Ted Miller, titled Inequities in Flood Management Protection Outcomes. Other organizations educating and advocating for environmental justice include Climate Justice Alliance and the Slow Factory Foundation. Environmental justice is a complex issue – part of larger systemic racism in the U.S. However, the more we know, the better we can all work towards a healthier future for ourselves, our neighbors and the environment.

Road flooded in the Mississippi River flood of 1993


Dembicki, Geoff. “This Map Shows Which US Homes Will Flood Over the Next 30 Years.” Vice, June 19, 2020. Accessed Aug 13, 2020, by JC. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/9353dv/this-map-shows-which-us-homes-will-flood-over-the-next-30-years-due-to-climate-change

Downey & Hawkins. “Race, Income, and Environmental Inequality in the United States.” Sociological Perspectives, Dec 2008. Accessed Aug 13, 2020, by JC. https://elizabethwarren.com/plans/environmental-justice

“Flood Equity.” Center for Neighborhood Technology. Accessed Aug 13, 2020, by JC. https://www.cnt.org/urban-flooding/flood-equity

Frank, Thomas. “Flooding Disproportionately Harms Black Neighborhoods.” Scientific American, June 2, 2020. Accessed Aug 13, 2020, by JC. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/

Gardiner, Beth. “Unequal Impact: The Deep Links Between Racism and Climate Change.” Yale Environment 360, June 9, 2020. Accessed Aug 13, 2020, by JC. https://e360.yale.edu/features/unequal-impact-the-deep-links-between-inequality-and-climate-change

Kaplan, Sarah. “Climate Change is a Racial Justice Problem.” The Washington Post, June 29, 2020. Accessed Aug 13, 2020, by JC. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2020/06/29/climate-change-racism/

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