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Climate Change Hurts the Poor First
Cindy Gu

Whether it’s a picture of a polar bear standing on a tiny island of ice that’s slowly melting, or video of droughts causing massive famine, most of us are aware of the effects of climate change. It feels scary, but it also seems like something that won’t impact us until the distant future. In reality, climate change is affecting us now, and its impacts will become more severe as time goes on.

However, politicians haven’t talked much about climate change during this election season. In fact, Donald Trump even claims that human-caused climate change is a hoax. Although Democrats acknowledge its importance, I don’t think they are emphasizing the necessity of taking immediate action.

I understand that income inequality, national security, and the refugee crisis are all significant issues. But I believe that climate change should be more in the spotlight because it affects all of those challenges, and many others. It threatens our food and water supplies, our housing, and our transportation systems, for example.

In some parts of the world, climate-related natural disasters like floods and droughts have driven people from their homelands and contributed to conflicts like the civil war in Syria, as people are forced to migrate from drought-stricken regions to cities. That means more refugees and more fighting over scarce resources.

Climate Change Hits Home

The fact that climate change hurts poor people the most gets even less attention from mainstream media and politicians. That’s something that local environmental organizations like West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT for Environmental Justice) are trying to change. They use an approach called “climate justice.”

According to Aurash Khawarzad, the policy and advocacy coordinator at WE ACT, working for climate justice means making sure that poor communities are not disproportionately affected by climate change and that climate policy treats all people fairly, regardless of race or income.

That’s not always happening. Let’s take the more frequent weather extremes scientists attribute to climate change—the intense heat waves in summer and the cold, harsh winters, both of which generate higher utility bills. For low-income New Yorkers, higher utility bills means less money for rent, food, health care, and other necessities.

image by YC-Art Dept

Increased flooding here in New York due to big storms and sea-level rise can also be more devastating for poor families. Many do not have the money to repair the damage after a natural disaster hits.

I remember soaking up the water that flowed into my family’s home during Hurricane Sandy. It didn’t dramatically affect us, but other New Yorkers were not as fortunate: According to New York City’s Department of Buildings, 800 buildings were destroyed or damaged by that storm. Many poor families were left without housing and couldn’t just pick up and move elsewhere because they couldn’t afford it. That meant many of them had to go to shelters.

According to NASA, the number of big, intense storms like Sandy is likely to increase in the future as a result of climate change. Besides property damage, these storms have a big effect on our transportation systems. After Sandy, the subway system shut down for several days because so many stations were flooded. Some were out of service for months. Again, poor people are most affected because they can’t afford to hop in taxis.

More Sandy-Like Hurricanes Predicted

Sandy’s damage to the subway system cost close to $5 billion to repair. When the city has to spend huge amounts of money to repair storm damage, fares are increased—plus there’s less funding available for social services, like public housing and food aid, that struggling New Yorkers need.

Even though the Democratic Party has emphasized the need to combat climate change, how much they can change regarding what type of energy we use and how we protect the environment is limited by political opposition. As the generation that will be affected by climate change more than any other so far, we should vote for candidates at every level of government who are willing to protect our future by continuing to fight for clean energy and less greenhouse gases.

Besides voting, or if you are too young to vote, you can join organizations like WE ACT ( and The Brotherhood/Sister Sol ( that work for climate justice.

We also need climate change education to play a bigger role in our schools. Many public high schools in New York City teach climate change sporadically, which does not reflect its severity. In order for us to advocate for greater climate justice and prepare for jobs that will help fight climate change, we need to understand the science behind climate change and its social impacts.

Khawarzad suggests starting a club to jump-start climate change education. “Students can discuss books together, invite guest speakers, and take trips to research the impacts of climate change and meet with similar student groups around the city,” he said. “They can also share ideas and goals with other interested students around the world.”

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