Climate change affects everyone, but it won’t affect everyone equally. Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately at risk in disaster, as they were in the aftermath of Sandy in 2012. In the past few months, hurricanes have battered our communities one after another. Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria have demonstrated that more frequent and severe storms are the new normal.


Even before Superstorm Sandy hit, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance had been assessing the projected effects climate change will have on industrial waterfront neighborhoods throughout the city. The Waterfront Justice Project – one of our long-standing community resiliency campaigns – grew out of the finding that NYC’s six Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas (SMIAs) are all vulnerable to storm surge and flooding. SMIAs are a special zoning designation which clusters heavy industrial use and other sources of pollution into a few areas of the City. These areas all happen to be predominantly low-income communities and communities of color. As an alliance, we are concerned that the City had not analyzed the risk of potential toxic exposure that could occur if this industrial land was flooded.


Superstorm Sandy sparked a pivotal shift in the way New York City thought about climate change. Envisioning the risks posed by man-made global warming is no longer an academic exercise: Sandy exposed how risk and inequality are intertwined. After Sandy, there were 18 reported spills from industrial facilities. The majority of renters impacted by Sandy had household incomes of less than $30,000 per year, and elderly and disabled New Yorkers were left stranded in public housing. We document these incidents and remember these stories so we can prepare for the next storm.


Hurricanes are natural disasters, but runaway climate change and rising income inequality are man-made. Our future planning cannot focus solely on building resilient infrastructure without addressing the underlying social fault lines. A comprehensive plan to address climate change must address all of its social, environmental, economic, and public health dimensions.   


As the Trump administration ends critical policies and programs that address all of these issues, the City and State needs to stand up and pass ambitious climate legislation, defend the Environmental Protection Agency, and protect vulnerable communities from flood risks. On October 28th, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance will join over 100 other organizations to send this message loud and clear. The lives of vulnerable New Yorkers are on the line – we can no longer wait.

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