Pope Francis is not the first to urge humanity to change its wasteful ways. But he may have given the harshest lecture last week, when he released an encyclical condemning policymakers’ weak responses to climate change problems, calling developed countries to cut carbon emissions, and linking climate change and social inequity.
“The deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet,” the encyclical reads. “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.”
For example, Francis said, water pollution hurts the poor, who cannot afford to buy bottled water. Those who live on the coast can’t afford to move when the sea level rises. And the depletion of fishing reserves hurts those who depend on these resources for food.
“We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach,” the Pope said. “It must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Whether or not it falls on religious ears, the Pope’s voice is an influential one. His examples seem to hit especially close to home for Seattleites. But he’s not the first to acknowledge that climate change affects the poor disproportionately.
Back in May, on an overcast Saturday in Columbia City, the humble Southside Commons building began to fill up. Groups of people paused at the door, peeking in apprehensively; and then walked in with the kind of friendliness expected at an ice cream social, a middle school play, or, perhaps even a movement for social change.
Within a few hours, the newly-trained activists would be canvassing the streets of South Seattle, asking willing participants to volunteer for a research survey. Questions include “Who do you think is the most impacted by climate change?” and “What are the resources in your community that you might rely on in case of extreme weather or disasters?”
The point of the surveys is to gather data for the Climate Justice Project, to support what Got Green and Puget Sound Sage, two grassroots organizations in Seattle, say they already know to be true: not everyone will experience the climate crisis in the same way.
“The impacts of climate change exasperate inequities that already exist in communities of color,” Executive Director Jill Mangaliman said. “Communities of color live disproportionately in the most polluted neighborhoods.”
“There are links between race and poverty,” Sameer Ranade, a Campaign Associate from the Washington Environmental Council, said. “It’s more so poor people than people of color, but it just so happens, through historic injustices in our country, that people of color are also poor.”
People of color disproportionately live in South Seattle, and they disproportionately tend to be poor. Poverty makes them more vulnerable, with fewer resources to adapt to unforeseen changes in their environment like climate change.
“The impacts of climate change exasperate inequities that already exist in communities of color.”
Mangaliman pointed out how existing environmental issues impact the poor and people of color more: “In South Seattle there’s a lot more industry, a lot more traffic, a lot less access to healthcare.”
A 2014 study by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency evaluated communities in Washington state to determine areas disproportionately impacted by levels of diesel pollution, household income, health sensitivity and several other factors. They found that neighborhoods in Tukwila, the International District, Southeast Seattle, and Greater Duwamish were in the top five percent when scored on these criteria.
The environmental effects of climate change are expected to follow much the same pattern in our region.
Lara Whitely Binder, Outreach and Adaptation Specialist at UW’s Climate Impacts Group, says tribal communities in the greater Seattle area are already preparing for the effects of climate change. She says their innate connection to reservation land makes them particularly vulnerable to floods and environmental degradation.
“Tribes are often locked into reservation land if they want to maintain their tribal identity,” Whitely Binder said. “They have connections with specific resources like salmon and shellfish, roots and berries, and species they hunt. These species are part of their ceremonial and cultural practices, as well as part of their tribal economy.”
Coastal flooding poses a threat of property loss to all residents, regardless of socioeconomic status. But the well-to-do can bounce back from such a loss. An affluent family can afford to stay at a hotel until they cash out their homeowner’s insurance. A poor family, as the nation saw when Hurricane Katrina hit, is stranded: sometimes in a crowded, makeshift shelter; or for days on a roof.
“‘Ecological’ neighborhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquillity,” Pope Francis said in his encyclical. “Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called ‘safer’ areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.”
“The [local] community is kind of a reflection of the context that is happening globally,” Ecological Economist for Earth Economics Tania Briceno said. “You can define all environmental problems in terms of a lack of justice with appropriation of resources by a few people.”
For the activists at the Climate Justice Project, Mangaliman says the hope is to gather data, start conversations about the environment, and uplift new leaders in South Seattle’s communities.
The Climate Justice Project plans to release a report at a public event in the fall.
A version of this story was first published in The Seattle Weekly.