Covering Climate Change and its Impact On Ethnic Communities

How media outlets can do a better job reporting on science and weather events impacting communities of color

One need only look to Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans to understand how climate change is disproportionately affecting ethnic communities, says Dr. Marshall Shepherd.

One need only look to Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans to understand how climate change is disproportionately affecting ethnic communities, says Dr. Marshall Shepherd.

This week Ebony Magazine asks whether blacks care about climate change. Earlier this month raised this question: Where’s the Black Political Conversation on Climate Change?  

“Barack Obama might be the only black person on the planet who cares about climate change,” Charles D. Ellison wrote following the announcement of new carbon dioxide emissions initiatives by the Obama Administration. “Without clean air to breathe or unflooded land to live on, eventually not much else will matter. For that reason alone, it’s time for black folks to get invested in the climate debate.”

One reason black people and other ethnic groups may not talk much about global warming, carbon emissions and melting polar icecaps is because they don’t make the connection with “kitchen table” issues like having to pay more for gas or food. Another reason for the relative silence is that hardly any news organizations, local or otherwise, are reporting on how climate change is specifically impacting ethnic communities; ethnic news media aren’t making the connections either. The National Science and Technology News Service is hoping to change this by increasing interest in science, technology, engineering and math through media advocacy.

Dr. Marshall Shepherd, a member of the news service, 2013 president of the American Meteorological Society and Director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia, sat down with All Digitocracy to offer tips on how ethnic media, particularly black news organizations, can do a better job at covering climate change.

The following is an edited version of our Q&A:

As the climate changes, unhealthy air pollution worsens, putting many of us at risk for irritated eyes, noses, and lungs -- but it is particularly dangerous for people with respiratory diseases like asthma.

As the climate changes, unhealthy air pollution worsens, putting many of us at risk for irritated eyes, noses, and lungs — but it is particularly dangerous for people with respiratory diseases like asthma which disproportionately affects people of color.

ALL DIGITOCRACY: Are ethnic media outlets covering climate change? What publications are covering it well?

Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Ethnic media, I believe is slipping on this issue completely. My recent article with Kellen Marshall addresses this., of late, has done a nice job and have been open to the topic. I have also spoken with once. However, I do interviews (print and TV) with major media (CNN, CBS, Washington Post, Time, USA TODAY, Weather Channel, etc) all of the time, but black media outlets rarely call. I think Charles Ellison’s recent piece alluded to this though it went off into other areas.

AD: How are scientists reaching out to journalists of color to educate them about this issue so that they, in turn, can inform their readers and audience about climate change?

MS: I am a part of a new effort called the National Science and Technology News Service. It is an effort to more effectively link black scientists and writers with the media and other stakeholders. It is a promising new effort. (Learn more about the news service here.) Otherwise, I think many black media just don’t make the connection that kitchen table issues (jobs, economy, health, security) are directly related to climate change (e.g. see Katrina, Sandy in NJ/NY, drought in 2012 raising food prices, etc.). Most black media and the community think it is about polar bears or far off in the future. It’s here.

AD: Why are ethnic media critical to this discussion, can’t black and brown people get what they need to know about climate change from mainstream publications?

MS: No because the mainstream media is not even versed in some cases on the unique vulnerabilities that ethnic minorities have to climate change. They tend to cover the larger picture but not the unique health, energy, well-being, and economic challenges we face.

Remember, any marginalized population will suffer more from additional stresses on them. And the irony, as I mentioned before, is that ethnic minorities will suffer more even though we have a  disproportionately lower carbon footprint than others (a carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted by an organization, product, event or person).


AD: What writers or experts should journalists follow to deepen their understanding about the issues surrounding climate change and its impact on ethnic communities?

MS: My article in Ebony this week gives you a few names of people to reach out too. They include the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative and Dr. Warren Washington, who in 2010 received the nation’s highest science award, the National Medal of Science, for his pioneering work on climate models. In addition there are colleagues in the Howard University Program in Atmospheric Sciences that I neglected to mention. The American Meteorological Society has a Board on Women and Minorities that can be a resource. I am @DrShepherd2013 on Twitter and am pretty much connected to most experts of color in this field.

AD: Why should communities of color, and therefore journalists of color, be concerned about climate change?

MS: Already present health and income disparities make African Americans and other minorities vulnerable to extreme weather and climate events (remember the faces of Hurricane Katrina).

The majority of African Americans live in urban areas. The combination of climate warming, heatwaves, and the urban heat island effect (which causes temperatures in major cities to be warmer than suburban and rural areas) renders many blacks at risk of suffering heat-related health issues. A 2008 study by The Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative found heat-related deaths among blacks occur at a 150 to 200 percent greater rate than for non-Hispanic Whites. Cities also tend to have more air pollution and smog—-which leads to an array of health complications like asthma (which affects blacks at a 36 percent higher rate of incidence than Whites) and other upper respiratory issues.Quote Graphic (6) A number of studies also show that socially vulnerable groups such as the elderly, lower income, racial minorities, and women are more likely than other income groups to perceive greater risks from natural disasters but less likely to respond to warnings about disasters; to suffer disproportionately from the physical and psychological impacts of disasters; experience injuries or higher mortality rates; and find it more difficult to recover after disasters. Water-borne disease, post-traumatic stress, loss of jobs or hours, and infrastructure damage also have lasting effects on the African-American community.

Climate change also impacts jobs and the prices we pay for goods and services. Market forces responding to climate change (for example, cap and trade policies, and other regulations) will drive supply, demand, and price for commodities and services that adversely affect traditionally lower-earning communities. In the South, lower income African-Americans and Hispanics are employed as wage laborers either directly or indirectly in the agricultural industry, which is particularly sensitive to weather and climate variability, especially drought. Energy policy and climate are also linked. African American households are particularly vulnerable to shifts in energy or fuel prices. A report commissioned by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation pointed out that African-Americans, per capita, have smaller carbon emissions than White populations, even though they are more significantly affected by climate change due to environmental pollution caused by human activity.