In Sweltering South, Climate Change Is Now a Workplace Hazard
“For too long, a lot of the climate change and global warming arguments have been looking at melting ice and polar bears and not at the human suffering side of it,” Professor Bullard said. “They are still pushing out the polar bear as the icon for climate change. The icon should be a kid who is suffering from the negative impacts of climate change and increased air pollution, or a family where rising water is endangering their lives.”
The “environmental justice movement” has, in fact, caught on with major environmental groups, but it has far to go before it begins moving the dial in the nation’s politics. Professor Bullard envisions the recruits for his movement coming not only from the liberal college towns of the Northeast and Midwest, but also from the sweltering working-class communities in the Sun Belt, which he sees as the front line of the nation’s environmental wars.
Residents of working-class communities in the Sun Belt often cannot afford to move or evacuate during weather disasters. They may work outside, and they may struggle to cover their air-conditioning bills. Pollution in their communities leads to health problems that are compounded by the refusal of most Sun Belt state governments to expand Medicaid access under the Affordable Care Act.
Working-class people must juggle a long list of problems, from getting gainful employment to finding decent schools. But Professor Bullard is trying to raise awareness of the environment around them. For the poor, the challenges of climate change are not abstract. John W. Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University who is the Texas state climatologist, says that in coastal southeast Texas, seasonal temperatures are about 1.5 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were in the early part of the 20th century.
In Texas, as in other parts of the world, that seemingly small average warming leads to a much greater chance of extreme heat waves, scientists say.
Mr. Guerra, who said he could not afford health care and feared this summer could lead to more spells of sickness, is hoping he can get a new job once he finishes the industrial mechanic program at College of the Mainland. Until then, he plans to use the $115 a day he makes mowing lawns to pay for school and rent. Mr. Guerra also hopes President Trump will reconsider his environmental policies.
“They don’t know what’s going on and can’t say anything because they are in cool houses and in offices,” Mr. Guerra said.