Global Warming and the Poor: Is Oregon Prepared?


In June, the papal encyclical on the environment was released. It was intended to put the plight of the poor, who did the least to cause global warming and who will suffer from it the most, front and center on the world’s agenda. Pope Francis said wealthy nations, whose industrialization and rampant overconsumption are primarily responsible for global warming, are therefore morally obligated to confront the issue and help the poor, who lack the means to adapt or escape.

The world’s poor include those right here in Oregon, most of whom live in the Portland area. Although the City of Portland and Multnomah County’s 2014 Climate Change Preparation Strategy (CCPS) says that Portland is not expected to suffer the kinds of violent storms and sea-level rise as in other parts of the world, Oregon is already experiencing rising temperatures, drought, intense wildfires, and record-low snowpacks. Just as everywhere else, it is low-income people and people of color who will be the most at risk.

Even before the Pope’s encyclical “Laudato Si” (“Praised Be to You”) came out, the human effects of global warming were starting to get more attention. Jacqueline Patterson, executive director of the NAACP’s Climate Justice Initiative, said in a recent interview in The Nation that the focus of mainstream environmental groups has been “…glaciers, flora, fauna and wildlife…The voices of frontline communities, the ones that are most impacted, usually don’t make it to the airwaves. That’s starting to change.” She gave Years of Living Dangerously, the 2014 Emmy Award-winning Showtime series about the impact of global warming on human lives, as an example.

As even a casual drive through Oregon would attest to, there is a lot of poverty in this state. It’s just shocking how much of it there is. A report from the Oregon Center for Public Policy said “If poverty were a city in Oregon, it would be the state’s largest city.” According to the report, 16.7 percent of Oregonians, or about 642,000 people, lived below the federal poverty line in 2013. That figure is in the same ballpark as West Virginia, which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, had a poverty rate of 18.5 percent in the same year.

So why are the poor here more vulnerable? As the CCPS explains, many low-income people live in industrial areas or near major highways where they are the most exposed to what it calls the “urban heat island effect.” Put simply: buildings, concrete, and pavement trap heat, making hot days hotter.

Poor and low-income Oregonians may not have air conditioning, increasing their vulnerability to heat stroke and heat exhaustion, with migrant farmworkers being among those most at-risk. The World Health Organization says that high heat causes a number of other health problems as well. Extremely hot days contribute to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, especially among older adults. Higher temperatures also result in increased levels of ozone and other pollutants, which makes these diseases worse.

In rural communities, Oregonians are facing increased risk of asthma, damage to property and displacement as climate change is increasing the intensity and duration of wildfire season. (Nationwide, 7.1 million acres, equivalent to the entire state of Vermont and Delaware, have burned off the map. A total of 481 square miles have burned in Oregon alone.).

In urban communities, the fact that low-income residents often live near highways means that they are exposed to more vehicle emissions and breathe in poorer quality air to begin with, a situation that higher temperatures make considerably worse. High heat also increases the level of pollen and other allergens in the air, which can lead to asthma attacks. Reduced snowpack and higher temperatures increase the risk of wildfire; the resulting smoke further worsens air quality.

The city of Portland, being the progressive city that it is, is lucky to have a formal plan such as CCPS to help its people cope with global warming. Low-income, older adults, and people of color are stated priorities. That has not always been the case in other parts of the country. In reference to Hurricane Katrina, Ms. Patterson pointed out that it’s not just the physical impact of global warming that jeopardizes people of color, it’s the apathetic response from government they receive. And that was one of the main points of the Pope’s encyclical – that the poor are at the bottom of the world’s priorities.

One of the CCPS goals that is already being acted on is to reduce the urban heat island effect by planting more trees and green spaces around Portland. Among the plan’s other objectives are to modify buildings and pavement so that they trap less heat. The city also intends to coordinate with social service agencies to provide cooling centers as well as have an early warning system in place for high heat and poor air quality days. Other Oregon counties, including Benton, Crook, Jackson, Wasco, Gilliam, and Sherman, are also preparing for the health effects of global warming.

Ms. Patterson also said that it would be a good idea for low-income people and people of color to be involved with government agencies that affect their communities, such as public utilities commissions and zoning boards.

But then there’s still the problem of reducing carbon emissions on a large enough scale to slow global warming. In that area, as with the rest of the world, Oregon still has a long way to go.

This legislative year, the Clean Fuels program, which requires fossil fuel producers to reduce the amount of carbon emissions produced by oil and gas by 10 percent over the next 10 years, survived an attempt by oil industry lobbyists to overturn it. On the other hand, HB 3470, a bill that could have created a carbon cap-and-trade system similar to California’s, did not pass. The Coal to Clean Energy transition bill (SB 477 and HB 2729), a bill that proposed to get Oregon’s investor-owned utilities completely off coal-generated electricity by 2025, also failed earlier this year.

So environmental groups in Oregon will have to continue to rally voters and keep up the pressure not only on state legislators, but on the media. Considering the record-breaking heat and low snowpacks here, weather reports on the TV news could do a lot to educate the broad public about global warming and its consequences.

In the spirit of the Pope’s encyclical, environmentalists could also pressure other Oregon counties to come up with their own climate change preparation strategies. But as we already know, it’s going to be a hard fight. The Pope’s message to protect the poorest and most vulnerable among us in our corporate-centered era seems as radical an idea as it was 2,000 years ago.

-Tina Gallier