Science

I Know Climate Change Exacerbates Inequality. I See It Happening in My Hometown.

City neighborhoods with predominantly black or low-income populations are the ones most vulnerable to environmental impact.

Sandbags sit in doorways as flooding occurs outside buildings in Alexandria, Virginia.
Sandbags sit in doorways as flooding occurs outside buildings in Alexandria, Virginia, on Sept. 11.
Zach Gibson/AFP/Getty Images

Chesapeake Avenue, in the Salters Creek neighborhood of Newport News, Virginia, sits atop a sea wall that shields it from the Hampton Roads, the body of water that connects the mouths of the James and Elizabeth Rivers to the Chesapeake Bay near where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The avenue stretches 2.5 miles east from Newport News to neighboring Hampton. Many of the adjacent neighborhoods, including Salters Creek, where I grew up, sit just a few meters above sea level. Here, the sea wall is quite literally a last line of protection against climate change.

In 2003, I saw Hurricane Isabel’s storm surge pummel the wall, sending cars washing along the street and tearing a private pier off its foundation. But I’ve also witnessed smaller, more frequent weather-related problems. The streets a couple blocks north of my family house have been flooding for decades, spilling onto lawns and making roads impassable. Years ago, they would flood only after heavy rainfalls, but now they flood even after more mild precipitation. Sometimes a mere high tide is enough to inundate the streets. Worse, as drinking water is removed from underground aquifers, the land sinks even further.

It’s worth noting that the neighborhoods adjacent to Chesapeake Avenue have some of the lowest median incomes—and highest proportions of black residents—in the Hampton Roads region. (This, despite the comparatively expensive homes, a few with courtyards and private tennis courts, set along the sea wall in Hampton.) It is an area that has seen climbing socio-economic inequality: From 2010 through 2015, median household and per capita incomes both fell more than 5 percent, when adjusted for inflation, even as incomes increased in Virginia overall. In these respects, the city is typical of many coastal population centers in the Southeast, where the blackest and poorest neighborhoods are also among those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. For residents of these neighborhoods, global warming isn’t a faraway, long-term problem; it’s threatening their livelihoods right now.

Perhaps nowhere was that reality more evident than in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, whose staggering intensity, some suggest, was at least partially attributable to anthropogenic global warming. The failure of the levees protecting the city’s low-lying neighborhoods led to perhaps the most infamous weather-related catastrophe in modern times. It’s hard to think of Katrina without recalling the television images of mostly black residents who were displaced, their lives upended, in the storm’s wake.

Because many of those residents couldn’t afford to return and rebuild, the catastrophe left a permanent imprint on the city’s makeup. The city’s black population fell from 66.7 percent of the population to 59.1 percent between 2000 and 2013. The citizenry that remains is wealthier and whiter than it was before. What had been a city bifurcated by race and class before the storm became more so. Debates over topics like the fate of public schools, the remaking of historic neighborhoods, and the complexion of the city’s leadership laid bare the city’s racial fault lines. The hurricane didn’t create those problems; it further fractured the already-existing fissures.

A similar dynamic is at work in Miami, where frequent flooding of expensive beachfront neighborhoods has helped drive up the demand for property in less wealthy, traditionally black neighborhoods inland. The result has been a migration of sorts, in which wealthy, white newcomers are gentrifying neighborhoods like Little Haiti and Liberty City, displacing longtime residents and long-standing businesses. In 2017, the real estate site Zillow listed Little Haiti as South Florida’s hottest neighborhood.

Which brings us back to Hampton Roads, a region experiencing one of the highest rates of sea level rise among U.S. metropolitan areas. Much of the region is already vulnerable to chronic flooding, defined as flooding that occurs at least 26 times a year and covers at least 10 percent of the usable, non-wetland area. By 2045, more than 3,000 houses in the region are projected to be at that level of risk. In 2016, Norfolk’s Old Dominion University won a $120.5 million 2016 federal grant to stabilize the region’s natural channels and shore up the surrounding wetlands. But for the foreseeable future, homes in neighborhoods like Salters Creek will remain vulnerable.

One response is to retreat inland, which means selling your house if you own property. But it can be difficult to find a willing buyer for a house in a flood zone—especially if you lack access to capital, as is the case for so many families in Hampton Roads. Newport News has experimented with buyback programs, buying homes on a voluntary basis in Salters Creek’s flood zone, but the effort is limited by the availability of local and state money.

As climate change marches forward, initiatives to protect neighborhoods like Salters Creek from rising seas and extreme weather will become increasingly important. The impacts of climate change cannot be disentangled from the politics of inequality and race; even the faceless menace of global warming can disproportionately affect black and less-wealthy communities. Our government’s policies should reflect that truth. The livelihoods of people like my family and the neighbors I grew up with will depend on it.