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Health, Science & Environment

Columbus Ties Climate Goals To Racial Justice

A view of the downtown Columbus skyline from Franklinton.
Mary Rathke

Earlier this month, Columbus city leaders unveiled the city's first-ever climate action plan.

The plan sets a goal of total carbon neutrality by 2050 and a 45% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Decades of research shows that climate change poses a particular risk to marginalized populations and communities of color.

In 1987, the United Church of Christ released its groundbreaking report, "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States."

"This was really the report that you could say, was like, the Cambrian explosion of environmental justice practitioners. It put everything into perspective," said Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice at the civil rights law firm New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

"One of the findings of the report was that a Black family with a household income of $100,000 was still six times more likely to be living by or situated in a community that had multiple sources of pollution, toxic waste dumps, air emitters, greenhouse gas, refineries and things of that nature. So six times more likely to be situated near those type of polluting facilities than a white family with a household income of $50,000," he said.

A more recent study published in 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences found that Black and Hispanic Americans are exposed to more than 50% more air pollution, relative to the exposure caused by their own actions.

The Columbus Climate Action Plan executive summary states that African Americans are 40% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increase in mortality rates due to climate-driven extreme temperatures, and 34% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increase in childhood asthma due to climate-driven air pollution.

It goes on to state that Hispanic and Latino individuals live in areas with the highest projected labor hour losses in weather-exposed industries due to more frequent climate-driven hot days with high temperatures.

Bryan Clark heads up citywide sustainability efforts for the City of Columbus.

He said the city is still grappling with the harmful environmental effects of racist choices made years ago.

"The branches have the same root issue. And that root issue is racism in the city of Columbus," he said.

He points to the example of Saunders Park in the city's Near East Side, which city leaders found was contaminated by a nearby former fertilizer plant.

“They hired an environmental consultant that came in and said, 'Well, it's contaminated, but it's at an acceptable level.' The problem is there is no acceptable level for those chemicals when it comes to children. And this was a place where kids were going swimming, they were playing soccer, they were playing on playgrounds," Clark said.

Columbus' Climate Action Plan lays out a series of 32 actions designed to reduce the community's greenhouse gas footprint while promoting equity.

Among them, city leaders plan to reduce urban heat by increasing the city's tree canopy cover.

"If you live in a neighborhood that has significant tree canopy cover, that neighborhood is going to be cooler during the summer, that neighborhood is going to be safer, the people that live there are likely to have a higher quality of life, all directly related to whether or not you have trees there in your neighborhood," said Clark.

Stephanie Hightower is president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League. She said the aspects of climate change that concern her the most are those that impact social determinants of health.

“Have we looked at housing that has lead poisoning? And how do we get that removed?" she said. "We want to make sure that there is adequate and clean water for families in their houses, and that that water is not polluted.”

Hightower said the city's climate action plan was undoubtedly the result of good intentions.

However, she said, the long-term costs of a changing climate are too often outweighed by the daily struggles facing many people of color.

"When I'm trying to keep a roof over my head, because there's no affordable housing, because of the health disparities that already exist. So I'm worried about how do I make sure that I can get my kid who has asthma in the right environment that air quality is where it should be so I can deal with my child who has asthma. When I don't have a job that's paying livable wages. Those are the things I'm worried about," she said.

Still, the Columbus Climate Action Plan gives hope for the next generation of environmental justice advocates.

"It almost got me Pollyannaish. It's like wow, if Columbus can do it, what say you Salt Lake City?" said Anthony Rogers-Wright with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

"Really encouraging. Great language. And of course, there's more work to be done. A Climate Action Plan is a set of words, and we anxiously wait to see how this will be implemented," Rogers-Wright said.

You can read the entire Climate Action Plan here.

Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.