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The Architecture of a Social Crisis

Climate change’s disproportionate impact on poorer neighbourhoods

On the most fundamental level, the impacts of climate change are tangible: in January 2022, NDTV reported that the combination of heat and humidity intensified by climate change makes working conditions dangerous for outdoor workers globally. It is a threat that can touch the body. As a result, it has the capacity to operate as an overarching crisis: environmental, political, economic, and in this case, social. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston explains that lacking the means to “escape overheating, hunger and conflict” like the rich, those in poverty will be left to endure the worst of climate change. The emphasised class-based hierarchy will also sever the already strained relationship between its tiers, creating not only lifestyles but worlds— and experiences of the same crisis— tangibly sequestered from each other. A present-day model of this social crisis exists in climate change’s disproportionate impact on poorer neighbourhoods.

“It’s no secret that our cities are still segregated.” Forbes Advisor, 2021

Urban areas are warmer than rural areas, and further spatial variations in temperature exist within urban areas. TIME Magazine outlines that, “generally, higher poverty neighbourhoods are warmer and wealthier neighbourhoods are cooler” when discussing Joyce Klein Rosenthal’s 2014 study, “Intra-urban vulnerability to heat-related mortality in New York City, 1997–2006.” Rosenthal’s exploration reveals a correlation between the mortality rate of New York’s senior citizens due to heat-related causes and the neighbourhood they live in— with higher rates observed in poor neighbourhoods. This rate is not born of only financial inaccessibility to amenities such as air conditioning, but also of the neighbourhood’s construction itself.

The Trust for Public Land’s report “The Heat is On,” which collected data from 14,000 US towns and cities, found that parks in poorer neighbourhoods were four times smaller and more crowded than parks in wealthier neighbourhoods. The use of industrial, heat-retaining materials like concrete to construct buildings and roads, and the lack of less industrial materials like soil and grass that allow heat to escape, increase the overall temperature of these neighbourhoods. Soon, residents find that they inhabit a sized-down “heat island”– a region that is far warmer than its outlying areas. Additionally, the professions of the residents, which often include outdoor labour, contribute to their susceptibility to heat-related ailments, as working in high temperatures and returning to a hot home only accentuates their vulnerability.

These tangible characteristics of poor neighbourhoods differentiate their residents’ physical experience of a shared climate crisis. More significantly, a stark class-based divide is already observable in the general discussion of climate change: while people are popularly advised to use less electricity, this staple suggestion is valid for wealthier communities but turned on its head in the context of poorer communities, who need to use more electricity to mitigate the adverse effects of global warming.

Economic disparity isn’t independently involved in disproportionately worsening the impact of climate change. Cracking through the simmering concrete of these urban heat islands is a racial crisis. For the fourth quarter of 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics reported an overall median weekly earnings of $1024 for white workers, compared to $799 for Black workers, $779 for Latinx workers, and $1309 for Asian workers. While the numbers reflect a larger median weekly earning for Asian American workers, a wider disparity in wealth exists among the Asian American population, and “non-wealthy Asian Americans are poorer than their White counterparts” (Williams, Wage gaps by race). Backlit by the glare of the racial wage gap stands the revelation that low-income neighbourhoods are largely inhabited by people of colour. Systemic racism, which seeps into the lives of immigrant and BIPOC families like folklore (arbitrating their access to education, their relationship with healthcare, their lived experiences), now moulds their experiences of a universal, physical climate crisis.

“His home, once proud and tall, lies crumpled beside him in a tangle of debris.” Mongabay, 2018

Across the Atlantic Ocean, slums close to Mumbai’s coast are extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels. Slums are characteristically constructed out of waste materials, such as tin and plastic, which would not be able to withstand serious flooding. While slum-dwellers contribute the least to the climate crisis, they are the most at risk, with the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting a 0.12-metre rise in sea levels near Mumbai by 2030 if the current global emission level persists. As per Reuters, around 65% of Mumbai’s population, 7.8 million people, live in the city’s slums and are evidence of a physically marked splitting of worlds: Mumbai’s topography of over 200 skyscrapers against low-lying slums (some of which stretch over 2.1 square kilometres) visually outlines the glaring spatial disparity which will isolate the experiences of the poor and wealthy in the event of rising sea levels even when living in close proximity to one another.

While incredibly weak infrastructure threatens millions in Mumbai slums, others lack the support of any infrastructure at all. Refugees and displaced persons in camps across Asia and Africa are facing extreme weather conditions, which sometimes cause secondary displacements. Cyclone Idai, which struck South-East Africa in 2019, tore through “around 2000 refugee homes” built out of mud bricks in the Tongogara refugee camp (Khadka Refugees at 'increased risk' from Extreme Weather). The UNHCR reported that essential amenities, such as toilets, were completely damaged and the inhabitants of the camp were at serious risk of waterborne disease because their water source was susceptible to contamination.

Informal camps housing Syrian refugees in Arsal, Lebanon, also faced heavy storms in 2019; UNHCR official Hiba Fares recounts that many “had their tents torn and broken,” while others “had their tents flooded.” Refugees and displaced persons are facing climate change without the buffer of secure housing or public infrastructure and the climate resilience they offer. In the disparate experiences of a teenager without clean water in Zimbabwe, 2019, and of a teenager writing about it in 2022, one can map the fracture that runs across time and space and splits a universal climate crisis into separate physical realities.

Climate change’s potential as a social crisis is currently modelled in the disparate experience of climate change by those living in poor and wealthy neighbourhoods. The tangible differentiation of their worlds translates to separate experiences of a universal crisis, an irony that reveals climate change’s intimate understanding of the role of division in fundamental social structures.

Edited by Thenthamizh SS and Eshal Zahur



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