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Black and brown people will suffer most from the climate crisis

The sun
(Picture: Getty)

The record-breaking extreme heat that the UK experienced over the past week was unpleasant and incredibly concerning for us all.  

But, as is so often the case when it comes to national and global crises, it is our most marginalised communities who will be hit the hardest. 

As we see the effects of the climate catastrophe begin to accelerate, there is another emergency unfolding simultaneously – a crisis of inequality.  

While the country baked at 40 degrees, some people debated the merits of putting their pillowcase in the freezer, invested in a second fan, or worked from home in relatively well-ventilated houses to avoid commuting. 

For many Black and brown people in the UK, however, the consequences of extreme weather will always be far worse.

What terrifies me is that there appears to be a refusal to acknowledge the societal inequalities that will disproportionately impact people of colour as climate change continues to affect the planet. It isn’t being spoken about enough.

The climate crisis is inherently linked to racism and inequality, and unless we tackle the two issues in tandem, it is inevitable that marginalised communities – the very people who contribute least to climate change – will feel the most devastating effects. 

People from ethnic minority backgrounds are four times more likely to live in areas at high risk from heatwaves in the UK. 

Researchers at the University of Manchester and Friends of the Earth found one in three people of colour live in areas most exposed to extreme heat, compared with just one in 12 white people. 

The disproportionate consequences for Black and brown people in the UK are stark. The average percentage of people of colour in high-risk neighbourhoods was a staggering 28%, compared with a national average of just 9.5%. 

As Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities are more likely to live in cities and urban, built-up areas, location plays a part in this disparity. 

But inequalities in wealth and working conditions are also a major factor. 

Non-white millennials, for example are more likely to be in unstable employment, less likely to be able to work from home, and more likely to be in jobs that involve being outside their homes.

The socioeconomic divide also means people from ethnic minority backgrounds have fewer resources to adapt their homes to cope with the changing climate. 

It’s vital that we connect these dots. These inequalities are not random or isolated, they are intertwined and systemic. 

Climate change is an inextricable part of this bigger picture, a crisis steeped in racism and injustice. 

Any response to the climate crisis must acknowledge how pre-existing inequalities impact marginalised communities, or nothing will change.

It isn’t only the heat that is a concern.  

Analysis from the Mayor of London in March this year, found that areas of London with larger Black, Asian and minority ethnic populations are more likely to face the highest risk from the climate emergency, including flooding, exposure to air pollution, and limited access to green space.  

That means for those populations, heatwaves are not simply about having a bit of trouble sleeping, or riding out a few hot journeys to work every summer. 

Put simply, extreme heat is deadly and is particularly lethal for vulnerable and marginalised people. 

Late last year, researchers in Europe found that climate change is set to have a ‘significant’ impact on respiratory health – with minority communities feeling the worst effects. 

The study proved the importance of tackling existing health inequalities – which could mean Black, Asian and ethnic minority people are more likely to get sick due to the worsening quality of air. 

This isn’t an abstract, far-off problem for future generations to worry about. It is already happening. 

In London, children are exposed to greater levels of toxic air, with those in the capital 4.2% more likely to be hospitalised due to exposure to high levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution than anywhere else in the country. 

A Black girl, eight-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, became the first person to have air pollution listed as a cause of death in 2019. 

Despite the clear evidence of a spiralling climate crisis that is certain to put the most vulnerable members of society at the greatest risk of harm, for the people in charge of running the country, this issue is barely on the agenda. 

Listening to politicians using their enormous platforms to endlessly debate tax cuts and identity politics while willfully ignoring that the country is virtually on the brink of bursting into flames has filled me with rage and disbelief over the last few days.

The frivolous spectacle of the Tory leadership contest showed that Sunak, Truss and their defeated rivals are too busy taking chunks out of each other, burnishing their ‘anti-woke’ credentials, and pandering to the very niche demands of their 160,000 members, to address climate change.  

Even though the final rounds of MP voting in the contest took place on the hottest recorded days the UK has ever seen, the candidates competing for the role of PM have been apathetic at best on climate change, and, at worst, have campaigned in favour of rolling back measures to tackle the crisis. 

Much has been made of the ‘diversity’ of the candidates running for Tory leadership and yet, this is a prime example of the limitations of representation politics. 

When it comes to addressing the specific needs of the groups they are so quick to claim they ‘represent’ in their campaign videos, these candidates are worryingly silent. 

Just like with the pandemic, which saw more Black and brown people dying of the virus, and the cost of living crisis, which is already causing greater financial strain for people of colour than their white peers, the impact of extreme heat in coming decades will not be felt equally.  

It’s a given that the government must start taking this looming catastrophe more seriously, but at the same time, there needs to be an acknowledgement that we are not all in this together. 

This climate crisis cannot be tackled until we address the systemic inequalities that threaten to once again position marginalised groups at the sharp end of disaster. 

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk

Share your views in the comments below.

MORE : UK on brink of first hosepipe ban in decade after record-breaking heatwave

MORE : Stop celebrating the heatwave and start panicking

MORE : Caroline Lucas: The Tories risk taking us backwards on climate change

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