The Victims of Climate Change Are Already Here

With a new global summit approaching, communities in the southern United States are calling attention to the disaster scenarios they currently face.

Gosia Wozniacka / AP

In the new global reality, where each passing year is the hottest on record, the final month of summer foretells calamity. It’s always hot and volatile in the dog days between mid-August and mid-September, but the past few years have dialed those elements up high. Heat waves, droughts, storms, floods, and other extreme events have garnered increasing attention. The largest wildfire in California’s history is now raging almost a year after the previous record holder hit the state. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma ravaged the Gulf Coast and Florida in late August last year. Hurricane Maria became the second-most deadly natural disaster in contemporary American history when it passed over Puerto Rico last September. And the 13th anniversary of the Louisiana landfall of Hurricane Katrina, the largest such storm, is on August 29.

Climate change is not a future problem. Climate change is a current problem. Yet the United States—despite this recent history—has pulled back from a number of already insufficient commitments to reversing emissions and global warming. Faced with this vacuum, American nongovernmental organizations and states have stepped forward with campaigns designed to reinvigorate climate activism and policy making. But they have a long way to go, especially in connecting a mainstream climate movement with the majority of the victims of those disasters.

One of the major initiatives put together as President Donald Trump began to withdraw the White House from climate leadership is the Global Climate Action Summit, which will take place in September. “This summit’s happening in San Francisco, California, but it’s something that was requested several years ago by the United Nations,” says Nick Nuttall, the summit’s spokesman. A collective of non-state actors organized the event, Nuttall says, with the goal of “bring[ing] together leaders from state and local governments, business, and citizens from around the world to demonstrate how the tide has turned in the race against climate change.” As Nuttall told me, the general idea is to recapture the energy that preceded the 2015 Paris climate agreement, in which most of the world’s countries agreed to pursue policies that would curb global temperature growth to well under 2 degrees Celsius.*

However, the problem with many climate summits—and much of the mainstream climate movement, generally—is that many of them focus on a future target, planning for and attempting to avert doomsday scenarios that might play out over the course of decades or a century. The mainstream paradigm often views climate change as a collective risk, and pushes people to action by selling fears of future societal collapse and environmental ruin. Both can be averted if politicians and people work together and with urgency, the common argument goes; if we all pitch in, we can avoid the worst.

As the fallout from Harvey, Irma, and Maria shows, though, that argument is false. The suffering caused by a warming and more temperamental environment is already happening, and it isn’t distributed equally, nor will it be. From the poor people in Vieques, Puerto Rico, who still face uncertain medical care and unstable electricity after Maria, to black and Latino communities severed from dialysis services in Houston during Harvey, if there’s anything the current climate regime tells us, it’s that vulnerable populations are already in trouble.

But as the anniversaries of America’s most infamous climate disasters come around once again, there are real efforts by a loose network of veteran environmental-justice leaders and groups across the country to spread the gospel of climate justice in this moment of crisis. More than a dozen local environmental groups from coast to coast have organized the Freedom to Breathe Tour, where journalists, activists, and environmental-justice experts will present vulnerable communities with their case for swift and dramatic action on climate change. The 21-day tour, which begins August 25 and will traverse the entirety of the American South and Southwest, will illustrate the current climate realities for communities of color in the nation’s most marginalized places.

“I don’t believe the science is inaccessible,” says Caroline Lewis, the founder of the CLEO Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on climate literacy and education in South Florida. “What we’re trying to do is simplify climate science for the general population.” During the tour’s stop in Miami, Lewis and her organization will run a workshop that uses well-known concepts like sea-level rise and gentrification as what she called “gateway drugs” to a full understanding of climate change.

In and around Miami especially, those costs are readily apparent. The city is facing the imminent threats of inundation, as well as the potential for climate-based gentrification, in which wealthier and typically whiter residents scramble for the few patches of high ground. The rising heat creates health problems, too, especially in many poorer communities that rely on window units and fans for air conditioning. Florida is expected to have several cities face more than 100 days of dangerous heat indices by 2050. And Miami’s cocktail of humidity and heat is on the verge of creating real danger. “We are one bad summer away from reading about heat fatalities in Miami,” Lewis told me.

Communities and activists see the road trip—along the 3,000 miles between Miami and San Francisco—as an opportunity to showcase ongoing disasters ahead of next year’s UN climate meeting. In Lake Apopka, Florida, members of the Farmworker Association of Florida are mobilizing after a recent study indicated that the virtually all-Latino population of farmworkers in the area faces regular heat-related illnesses—and that’s in addition to regular exposure to pesticides. In “Cancer Alley,” a swath of Louisiana between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, residents burdened with higher-than-average rates of cancer have sought protections against the petrochemical industry that dominates the region. And in New Orleans, 13 years after Hurricane Katrina, black and brown residents still live in profound environmental insecurity, facing continued displacement, pollution, and flooding.

In Houston, another stop on the tour, both ends of the climate-degradation loop are on display. Harvey revealed just how dangerous the petrochemical industry can be, with multiple hazardous-waste leaks in vulnerable neighborhoods and explosions in a peroxide-production plant near the city. But that danger might’ve stayed muted if not for the storm, whose intensity was likely amplified by the use of petrochemicals.

“With Harvey in Houston, there’s the big picture,” says Priscilla Villa, an organizer with the environmental advocacy group Earthworks. “Houston is seen as this epicenter for oil and gas. The [industry] headquarters are based there. But there’s also a lot of industrial facilities that exist, predominantly on the east side near communities of color.” Oil-and-gas extraction and the refinement process are well known to be sources of pollution, and the use of oil and gas is well known to drive climate change. According to Villa, the vulnerabilities of communities to the pollution and their vulnerabilities to a changing climate are inseparable.

Continuing on across desert and mountains and into the rich hinterland of California, the communities on the tour are increasingly vocal—perhaps even desperate. For them, the points of no return aren’t 2 degrees away in the future, but could be reached within the span of a few years. Farmworkers in western Texas face the dual pressures of hostile immigration enforcement and hotter and more dangerous working conditions. Small minority-owned farms in New Mexico seek a new model to compete in a warming state.Throughout the tour’s span, displacement is already widespread, migrant farmworkers have already found themselves fleeing heat and droughts, and the space and social boundaries of cities that were already built under the constraints of Jim Crow are under stress from natural disasters and heat.

Events like the Global Climate Action Summit are kicking off a post-American era of climate leadership, with the understanding that if humans wait too long to do something meaningful about the Earth’s warming, catastrophe is surely ahead. But even more sure is that there are plenty of catastrophes brewing in forgotten places today.

*This article originally stated that the Paris climate agreement was signed in 2016, and misstated its target to be exactly 2 degrees Celsius. We regret the errors.