Boston, Massachusetts
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Rev Mariama White-Hammond's mission to stop climate change impacts hitting black and minority communities hardest began when she volunteered in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

She spent her time helping residents apply for federal aid after they lost their homes, possessions and sometimes even loved ones when their families lacked resources to evacuate.

"That really changed my perspective," White-Hammond, 40, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "That was the big shift for me."

Rev Mariama White Hammond

Rev Mariama White-Hammond joined thousands for a vigil and rally against police brutality in Boston's Franklin Park on Tuesday, 2nd June. PICTURE: Handout by Eric Esteves

When she returned home to Boston, White-Hammond joined the environmental justice movement, aiming to bring attention to the inequities that make predominantly black communities like hers more vulnerable to climate disasters and pollution.

Issues of racial and economic inequality have surged to the fore in the United States as protests against police brutality and racism erupt around the country.

"Communities facing racist violence and over-policing are also over-run by fossil fuel extraction, pollution, and every manner of related health disparities."

- Tamara Toles O'Laughlin of campaign group 350.org.

Environmental groups say outrage over the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer who pinned Floyd's neck to the ground with his knee, highlights the systemic racism that puts minority communities at the frontline of climate change and other risks.

"Communities facing racist violence and over-policing are also over-run by fossil fuel extraction, pollution, and every manner of related health disparities," Tamara Toles O'Laughlin of campaign group 350.org, noted in a statement.

As Massachusetts lawmakers push ahead on a target of achieving net-zero climate-changing emissions by 2050, White-Hammond and other activists question whether the state is doing enough to protect minority residents from climate threats.

"How do we make sure that money flows to the communities that need it most?," asked White-Hammond, who is also a climate justice fellow with the statewide Green Justice Coalition.

Massachusetts has identified a number of "environmental justice communities": cities and towns with a high population of minority, low-income or non-English speaking populations who face disproportionate environmental burdens.

One of those communities is Roxbury, the Boston neighbourhood where White-Hammond grew up before she moved to Dorchester, another nearby neighbourhood.

More than 80 per cent of Roxbury's residents are people of colour and more than a third have low-to-no-income, according to government data.

According to the Climate Ready Boston initiative, launched in 2015 to help the state plan for climate impacts, Roxbury's demographic makeup is one factor putting it "at the convergence of several future climate hazards and vulnerabilities."

Those include extreme heat and coastal flooding.

Cities, with their higher levels of heat-absorbing concrete, generally suffer from a "heat island" effect, which can make them several degrees warmer than their surrounding areas.

"Roxbury has some of the hottest daytime temperatures" in Boston during the summer, according to the report.

US Boston protests2

James Mackey and his eight year old son Evan James Mackey raise their fists during nine minutes of prayer led by faith leaders with the group Prophetic Resistance Boston remembering the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Boston, Massachusetts, US, on 1st June. PICTURE: Reuters/Brian Snyder/File photo.

In Dorchester, which borders Roxbury and has similar demographics, there is a "high probability" that about 10 per cent of the land will suffer annual flooding by the 2050s, the researchers noted.

Chris Cook, Boston's chief of environment, energy and open space, said the city is prioritising ways to limit the displacement of poorer residents in case of events such as extreme rainfall, major storms or sudden sea-level rise.

"We are catalysing projects that protect our most socially vulnerable residents first," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Plans for boosting the city's climate resilience include building "as much green infrastructure as possible", Cook said, including berms along riverbanks to contain rising tides and flooding.

Predominantly black and minority communities can be particularly hard hit by environmental risks to their health, such as air pollution and prolonged heat, health experts say.

"Lower-income and minority communities [also] tend to have more underlying health problems and poor housing quality, which may make them more susceptible to disease, mental health issues and illness from extreme heat."

- Sharon Harlan, a professor of health sciences at Northeastern University in Boston.

Sharon Harlan, a professor of health sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, has done research on how heatwaves affect people living in different parts of a city.

Looking at death records and recorded hospitalisations in Phoenix - Arizona's capital, which swelters in the summer - "we find that a disproportionate number of the deaths occur in poor areas" that tend to have many minority and low-income residents, she said.

These communities often have less green space and tree shade than other neighbourhoods, and many residents can't afford air conditioning, Harlan noted.

"Lower-income and minority communities [also] tend to have more underlying health problems and poor housing quality, which may make them more susceptible to disease, mental health issues and illness from extreme heat," she added.

Dr Gaurab Basu, co-director of the Center for Health Equity Education and Advocacy at the Cambridge Health Alliance, a community healthcare provider, said the risks to marginalised communities in Massachusetts are becoming increasingly evident.

He referred to a study published last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit advocacy group, which found that black and other minority communities in Massachusetts are exposed to up to a third more air pollution than their white counterparts.

"Communities of colour, poor communities, are often living in areas in which they have more environmental exposures – maybe living by the highway or where there's a lot of congestion," Basu explained.

US Boston protests

Adam Neves, six year-old holds a sign during a rally following the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Boston, Massachusetts, US, on 1st June. PICTURE: Reuters/Brian Snyder/File photo.

Environmental justice activists point to a history of racist housing policies in the United States that have shifted resources to mainly white areas, leaving predominantly black communities exposed to more climate shocks and health hazards.

Those policies include redlining, which allowed banks to deny mortgages and other financial services to people living in non-white neighbourhoods. The practice was federally banned in the 1960s.

The legacy of redlining, and other more subtle but also oppressive practices that continue today, have resulted in deeply entrenched "environmental racism", said Amy Laura Cahn at the Conservation Law Foundation, a non-profit based in Boston.

"Those dynamics and that inequity remain entrenched," said the senior attorney.

The Massachusetts Senate in January overwhelmingly passed a Next Generation Climate Policy package that included provisions aimed at reducing the impact of climate change on disadvantaged residents.

One was pushing efforts to supply low-cost solar power to low-income communities, to provide more affordable, cleaner energy.

"There are deep connections between why we live in a world where we recognise that the way we're living is hurting peoples' lungs...and why a police officer would think it's OK to put his knee in someone's neck until they asphyxiate."

Rev Mariama White-Hammond

State senator Marc Pacheco, the chair of Massachusetts' Standing Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, said he would like to see "even stronger language" in the bill.

That would include a focus on making sure vulnerable communities get a fair share of the benefits of solar and wind energy policies and projects.

"That ability should not only be for the wealthy class in Massachusetts, but it should be there across the board - for the middle class, for the poor, for everyone," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In recent days, White-Hammond has participated in several rallies in Boston to protest against police brutality and demand equal treatment for everyone.

For the pastor, who says her climate work is driven by her combined experiences as a black woman, a faith leader, and a believer in science, the anti-racism protests are a chance for environmental activism to become far more diverse and joined-up with other justice movements.

"There are deep connections between why we live in a world where we recognise that the way we're living is hurting peoples' lungs...and why a police officer would think it's OK to put his knee in someone's neck until they asphyxiate," she said.