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Would you guess the most vulnerable climate region in the U.S. is the Deep South?

an arial view of a forest, cloudy sky and mountains in the background
Forest in Tennesee. Image Credit: Unsplash // Aaron Clinard

When most people think of climate change in the United States they may think of wildfires raging through California, hurricanes on the coasts of Florida, droughts in the Arizona desert, blistering heatwaves in Texas, and perhaps milder winters across snowy northern states like New York.

However, what many don’t think of is how climate change is affecting the Deep South outside of natural disasters, when in fact communities across Lousiana, Alabama, Texas, Tennessee, and the Carolinas are some of the most vulnerable regions, not just because climate factors, but also because of environmental racism and existing disparities.

A new study published in the February 2023 issue of Environment International shows how these disparities in the U.S. are exacerbated by climate change. It highlights specific communities from Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee to Birmingham and Mobile, Alabama that are dealing with the brunt of intersecting climate vulnerability, and most importantly, how policy and investment can drastically change the situation.

The study's authors, who are from Texas A&M University, created a Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) in conjunction with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) using a mapping-based approach.

The researchers collected data from 184 indicators of both “baseline vulnerabilities” and climate change risks. Incorporating community stakeholder input, the data spans five categories: health, socioeconomic status, infrastructure, environment, and extreme events such as hurricanes.

The study identifies climate-vulnerable hotspots all over the country, especially in states from the Southeast to the Southwest. The map below shows how the researchers layered individual maps identifying where the five risks are most prominent. Data from each map was used to create a map converging each factor, showing the locations of high and low CVI scores.

Image Credit: Environmental Defense Fund/Texas A&M University

Climate change is a nationwide issue, however, when climate risk and existing vulnerabilities coincide, the study shows southern metropolitan areas burdened with urban pollution are the most at risk, with worsened air quality, water pollution in the Mississippi River Basin, and sea level rise for states bordering the Gulf of Mexico.

With all of that data, the researchers were able to conclude the most vulnerable climate regions comprise 28 counties across just nine states: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Alone, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee accounted for 87 of the highest 100 combined scores.

Many of these counties like Shelby County in Memphis, Jefferson County in Texas, and St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” share their neighborhoods with industrial facilities.

In the case of “Cancer Alley,” these facilities are championed by their local leaders for the economic opportunity they bring, despite the millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide they spout and the fatal health issues they bring to Baton Rouge.

St. James ranks in the top 1% nationwide for cancer chemical concentration. However, by showing that places like St. James are in the top 10% of climate-vulnerable regions, the researchers hope it will get the attention, investment, and infrastructure, it deserves.

In the study, the researchers point out what this infrastructure could look like. It could be increased access to healthcare, lower cost for basic services such as housing and transportation, and access to technology, which is proven to have vast effects on the socioeconomic status of people, especially students, and could have an effect on workforce development in communities, a necessary factor for building climate resilience.

Still, the researchers emphasize the need for hyperlocal solutions and interventions due to how different the most-affected areas are.

According to the researchers, they published their study in response to a growing push to identify and address climate injustices and inequities, exemplified by President Joe Biden’s 2021 executive order to ensure environmental and economic justice are centered in domestic climate action.

Other indexes like the CVI already exist such as one the White House created to help guide Justice40 Initiatives — a promise from the Biden Administration that designates 40% of federal climate funds to go toward disadvantaged communities and organizations working toward environmental justice.

However, the 184 indicators the Texas A&M researchers used are roughly three times the number of indicators the White House used for its screening tool. While both paint the Deep South as the most vulnerable region in the States, the breadth and scope of the CVI index promote a better understanding of intersecting climate risks.

Given the U.S. government initiatives concerning climate and equity such as Justice40 and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the researchers hope the CVI can be used to guide local policymakers, target federal interventions, and empower communities who have taken the situation into their own hands.

“Black communities in the Deep South are in the fight of their lives to protect their community from years of environmental racism, and we need every tool available to showcase what years of pollution look like in our communities,” Beverly Wright, founder and executive director of the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ), said via E&E News.

Wright, who is also a member of the Biden Administration’s White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council added that the “data is pivotal to ensuring those federal resources reach the communities they are intended to.”

Despite the robustness of the study, the researchers identify areas where the CVI could be improved, specifically concerning Native American populations and tribal communities. “We know, for example, that Native American crops (First Foods) are particularly susceptible to climate change, but these are not included in existing datasets,” they write. Thus the lack of available data on the subject inhibited this intersectional factor from inclusion.

They hope that improvements in data collection and reporting will be supported by the Biden Administration so that further research includes important factors like Native American crop risks and the CVI can be updated.

According to the researchers, understanding the intersectionality of climate issues with factors like poverty and systemic inequality is the key to finding solutions and closing gaps in the lack of climate-resilient infrastructure and investment in the South. Ultimately, they hope the CVI will provide a robust scientific foundation for pinpointing where health, social, environmental, and climate issues converge in the United States and lead to changes in policy.

“With the Biden Administration’s recent legislation – including the Inflation Reduction Act, Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, and Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act (IRA, BIF, and CHIPS) – we have a historic opportunity to tackle decades of systemic neglect in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color,” two of the paper’s authors, Jeremy Proville and Grace Tee Lewis wrote in a blog post about the study.

Total funding across the IRA, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), and CHIPS bills reaches approximately $1.6 trillion over 10 years, the researchers calculate. Due to provisions in the Justice40 Initiative and IRA, about 40%, or $641 billion, will target communities most in need, and 35%, or $535 billion, will target climate change risks across the country. The CVI can play a role in allocating that money.

The researchers use Harris County, Texas as a case study. Affluent areas of Houston have a low vulnerability index, however, the contrasts between wealthy areas and a concentration of environmental justice communities along the Houston Ship Channel tell a tale of two cities.

Image Credit: Environmental Defense Fund/Texas A&M University

According to a report by the National Resources Defence Council (NDRC), this area is plagued by some of the worst air quality in the U.S. and is home to the largest petrochemical manufacturing complex in the Western hemisphere.

Thus it should come as no surprise that these facilities are causing a litany of diseases and premature death primarily for people of color, people living in poverty, and limited-English households.

A quarter of residents in the primarily Hispanic/Latino community of Harrisburg/Manchester live in poverty and have industrial-caused pollution fifty to sixty times more concentrated than that of the broader eight-county region. On top of all that, climate-exacerbated flooding is among the highest-ranking risks in the county according to the CVI.

However, targeted interventions could mitigate these issues.

Policymakers could direct investments to address the burden of heavy-duty vehicles, rail, congestion, and freeway infrastructure, for example, which would have drastic impacts on reducing air pollution, chronic health conditions, and flooding from freeway runoff in CVI-earmarked counties.

Measures to ease energy costs could be introduced.

Policymakers could better direct assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) before disasters occur.

IIJA or IRA funding could be directed toward energy efficiency, clean transit, workforce development, and affordable housing to make these communities more climate-resilient.

And finally, funding zero-emission port infrastructure like electric heavy-duty vehicles, cargo-handling equipment, and toxic air monitors in this shipping-dependent region could catalyze systemic benefits.

The solutions are there, the researchers show. With the CVI, they write in the blog post, “We can help level the playing field by directing resources to build resilience and adaptability in the right places across our country.”

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