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.





  1. Roger W. says

    Tracie brings up an important issue.

    There have long been stories around the country dealing with the disparate impacts of climate change and related environmental issues on low income communities, and communities of color. But these have been scattered and localized, and not picked up by national media.

    Back in 2008, for example, US Black Engineer and IT magazine devoted two editions to environmental research at HBCUs, and Blacks in Energy . These were stories which could have been followed by reporters in many areas. Texas Monthly, which isn’t a b lack publication, had an extensive article last year about the disparate impact of the Koch Brothers’ fracking operations on a low income black community.

    The stories are out there. But there are two distinct problems with coverage.
    1. The environmental beat is a complex one, encompassing nearly every other major beat in a news organization. At a time when the trend in major media is to have general assignment reporters, instead of beat reporters, it is difficult to expect a reporter who is not versed in a subject and its ramifications to spot the main stories, let alone specific side issues.

    Thee is an ongoing fight in New York, for example, over the re-licensing of two nuclear power plants near NYC. One of the challenges to the license was by the environmental group Clearwater, which contended that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not take into account the disparate impact a meltdown would have on low income communities and communities of color who were less likely to have private transportation and would be unable to escape radiation. The judicial ruling was that the challenge was right — but the court was sure the company would now do the right thing and, therefor, was ruling against Clearwater. I’ve never seen a decision like that. There have been no stories on it. But then, few reporters wade into the intricacies of the electrical marketplace, let alone the nuclear part of it.

    2. In 1980 I approached the press room the AMA had set up for its annual convention, in Chicago that year, and a white reporter from the NYT blocked the entrance, stating “this isn’t a Negro conference. You have no business here.”

    Getting him out of the way was easy. But the attitude he represented at that point in time was another matter.

    For many editors in the media — print and broadcast — there were unwritten categories that blacks could cover and others where they claimed it “wasn’t a good fit.” And blacks were not promoted to those beats. Unfortunately, there were many black reporters who saw no need to push to get into these beats for similar reasons. Back then, Joan Whitlow at the Newark Star Ledger and I were the only black medical editors I was aware of. And it wasn’t unusual for black reporters to ask us what was the relevance of the beat.

    But over time, more black reporters pushed to take on that beat — we all need to be healthy — and more editors realized that blacks should not be denied the opportunity to cover the topic. It is far more than the germ of the week. Health care — the finance and politics — consume a significant share of the American economy and political sphere. The delivery has never been equal, and that disparity has not always been covered.

    The environment, however, is an area where there is still unspoken resistance by editors, and a lack of interest by black reporters. There are exceptions. Ivan Penn down in Tampa has forced the Florida legislature to rewrite the laws financing nuclear power plants. Talia Buford has done an enormous job covering energy issues for Politico. According to the Association of Blacks in Energy, minority communities pay a disproportionate share of their income for various forms of energy — electricity, heat, and transportation.

    You would be hard pressed to find coverage in the black press of the ongoing mess at Fukushima. Yet there are two minority angles there:
    1. Who is cleaning that crap up? In Japan, that falls to the folks they refer to as “throwaway people” ( ) who are confined to the ghettos on the outskirts of each city. An editor at The Root said she didn’t see the relevance of a story on these folks, who are worked till they have an overexposure of radiation, and are then fired — with no health care and no follow up.
    The relevance is simple — if there is a meltdown here, who the hell do you think would be stuck with the cleanup?

    2. (And this one’s for Meta) . There were some 70,000 American service men and women and their dependents living on military bases within range of the radiation spewing from Fukushima. Many of them now have unexplained medical problems — including cancer in the brain. The Government, however, is treating them the same way it treated service men who came back from Vietnam after exposure to Agent Orange and Agent Blue and Agent Black. It declared there was no problem and would not cover their illnesses.

    With 70,000 exposed, there are bound to be victims in any community large enough to have a newspaper. ( ) Many of these service folks are black. Or Latino. and Women — some of them pregnant at the time.

    These are folks who could be interviewed. Yet there is little interest here — and none I’ve seen in black publications — about the implications for communities here around nuclear plants or installations. Ditto the hazards of fracking, or shipping crude in single-shelled rail tank cars.

    The environment is an ever expanding beat. There is a serious need for more blacks to cover aspects of it.

    Roger w


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