Environmental activists drew connections between the disproportionate impacts of the coronavirus and extreme heat on communities of color in a virtual hearing Tuesday of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
“While we may not know exactly the details of how extreme heat compounds the effects of COVID on low-income communities and people of color, what we do know and we can see is that the relationship definitely exists and is (exacerbated) by oppressive systems of racial inequity,” said Heather McTeer Toney, national field director for the nonprofit Moms Clean Air Force.
As the pandemic stretches into the summer, cities’ lower-income neighborhoods of color are also affected by the urban heat island effect. With fewer trees, limited access to air conditioning and more concrete, these communities are often hotter than others, according to Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas.
A joint investigation last summer by NPR and the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service found that in more than 70 cities around the country, the hottest areas also tend to be the poorest. And people living in those urban heat islands are often sicker and less able to cool their homes.
While solutions exist, initiatives that increase tree canopy and rebuild streets to reflect heat are expensive and take time.
Several Democratic House members joined Johnson, who chairs the committee, and the hearing’s witnesses in saying that the unbalanced effects of diseases and disasters on people of color stem from historic redlining and discriminatory housing policies.
Such practices have placed people of color near factories that pollute air, land and water, according to Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, the National Wildlife Federation’s vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization.
“As a result, these frontline communities suffer from chronic medical conditions; heart, liver, kidney and lung diseases, as well as cancers,” Ali said. “Further, these chronic medical conditions make people more susceptible to the coronavirus and health-related illnesses, including heat exhaustion and stroke.”
Black people are more than 3.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people in the United States, according to a May report from Yale University. The study also found that Latino people are nearly twice as likely as white people to die from the virus.
The four environmental justice advocates who testified pointed toward an array of fixes for the range of issues discussed, from improving data collection to preventing the rollback of environmental safeguards by the Trump administration to funding public infrastructure and healthcare.
Some Republican committee members said they worried the scope of the hearing was too broad to determine concrete solutions. They also stressed that their focus should be on addressing the most pressing issue in front of them: the pandemic’s unequal impact on people of color.
“I think we could create perfect air, perfect weather right now with the flip of a switch if we could,” said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona. “We’d still be left with this grim problem when we wake up tomorrow morning.”
Rep. Frank Lucas from Oklahoma, the committee’s ranking member, emphasized the importance of investing in development. Implementing emission standards, he said, would adversely affect low-income communities where families already spend disproportionate amounts on energy costs.
But his GOP colleague Rep. Randy Weber from Texas, who said he owned his own air-conditioning company for 35 years, disagreed.
“Heat and cold and energy efficiency is pocketbook blind, race blind, sex blind,” he said. “It gets everybody the same way.”
Cecil Corbin-Mark, deputy director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice based in Harlem, said funding the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program to increase energy efficiency in low-income homes “would not be something that would break the bank.”
When the witnesses were asked how much the solutions they proposed would cost taxpayers, Corbin-Mark’s fellow panelists said settling on a specific price tag wasn’t the best answer.
“It’s not about the amount of money that we need,” said Hilton Kelley, founder and director of Community In-Power & Development Association Inc., an environmental justice nonprofit in Port Arthur, Texas.
“It’s about the work that needs to be done,” Kelley continued, “and putting together a comprehensive plan to get it done when it comes to reducing pollution, when it comes to adequate housing and when it comes to the health care for Americans across the board.”