Environmental racism? California’s eco-friendly policies disproportionately benefit whites, rich neighborhoods

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Californians may actually be able to see inequality in the air they breathe, a new study contends. Researchers from University of California-San Diego have discovered that the state’s strict environmental regulations for businesses benefit predominantly white neighborhoods significantly more than minority communities.

In their review of air pollution during the coronavirus pandemic, study authors found much higher levels of pollutants in largely Asian and Hispanic communities in comparison to white, non-Hispanic neighborhoods across the state.

The team discovered this by comparing statewide pollution levels prior to 2020 to the drop-off these communities saw after California officials issued shelter-in-place orders during the pandemic. Using data from public and privately-owned air monitor networks, the team found Asian and Hispanic populations experienced significantly larger drops in pollution when the state’s in-person economy shut down.

Simply put, COVID lockdowns revealed how dirty the air really was in non-white communities — despite state rules which are supposed to be cleaning the air for everyone.

Are the rich and poor breathing different air?

The team from UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy also discovered that predominantly Black communities did not see similar benefits in air quality during COVID lockdowns. Black neighborhoods in California had higher levels of pollution in comparison to largely white communities when the state would only allow essential businesses to stay open. Moreover, this stayed the same after state officials lifted the shelter-in-place orders.

Researchers say this suggests that local power plants, electricity generators, and other sources which produce emissions are a constant problem in these neighborhoods, regardless of California’s supposed crackdown on greenhouse gases.

Along with a racial disparity, study authors discovered an income disparity as well. Low-income communities consistently saw more pollution in the air when the economy was working at full speed and during the shutdown. However, the team notes income only tells a small part of the story.

“Income only explains about 15 percent of the disproportionate decrease in air pollution experienced by Asian and Hispanic communities during the shutdown,” says Jennifer Burney, the Marshall Saunders Chancellor’s Endowed Chair in Global Climate Policy and Research at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, in a university release. “This may be surprising to many because people tend to conflate income and race, both because systemic discrimination is a hard thing to face and because we have accepted that we live in a world where individuals can ‘buy’ cleaner air through higher housing prices in less polluted areas.”

“The COVID shutdown gave us a window into what pollution patterns look like when most of the economy is turned off and it showed that though there is some small overlap, income does not explain the racial and ethnic bias in how our economy creates and distributes pollution,” Burney adds.

Policy failure in the Golden state

Researchers believe their findings expose an environmental policy failure in California; one that places rules on all residents but only benefits a select few. In the state, all emissions are subject to local regulations. This includes the emissions coming from vehicles, energy, and construction projects. In order to operate, most industries have to meet strict environmental standards.

“One would think that in a state with strong environmental policies, where we track what is being emitted where, that our regulatory system might do a good job of protecting everyone equally,” Burney says.

“But this is really strong evidence of systemic bias. Pollution sources from everything that was shut down, transportation, businesses, restaurants, etc. all add up during business-as-usual conditions. Thus, the total system is tipped, exposing racial and ethnic minorities to more pollution.”

Although the current study focuses on California’s policy breakdown, the team suspects that other states are dealing with the same issues. Additionally, since income only plays a small part in this problem, researchers say policymakers must look at other solutions to address “environmental racism.”

“There is no clear, quantitative equity criterion applied in regulatory analysis to safeguard against environmental racism,” concludes co-author Katharine Ricke, an assistant professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“For example, if an industry wants to build a factory, they have to complete an environmental assessment report, but that report isn’t required to include a set of metrics to demonstrate how different demographic groups nearby would be affected. If industries had to run atmospheric models to show that the proposed facility is not going to disproportionately affect minority neighborhoods nearby, that could instigate a significant shift in making environmental regulation more equitable.”

The findings are published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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