Lower-income and minority communities are especially vulnerable to the detrimental effects of climate change, which should make protecting them a societal priority, according to a recent report.
The report, by the New Jersey Climate Change Alliance, focused on so-called environmental justice communities — areas especially burdened with pollution, particularly for people of color, and its impact during and after Hurricane Sandy.
The extreme weather left residents of these communities, as elsewhere, without power and with disrupted communications. But it also drove up rents due to limited housing, among other problems. The storm surge also raised concerns about increased exposure to toxins, according to the report.
The overriding recommendation of the report, one of a series done by the alliance focusing on how the state should adapt to changes caused by climate change, includes specific emergency and preparedness plans for environmental justice communities.
What’s more, once the plans are adopted, they need to be practiced to ensure the community is prepared when a violent storm does occur, the report said.
While a direct link between Sandy and climate change has not been established, most scientists predict global warming is likely to increase the frequency of extreme storms and their intensity.
A major problem with the response to Sandy was a lack of communication and information about possible toxic contamination. The storm knocked out the state’s largest wastewater treatment plant and many others, sending hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into New Jersey’s waterways, according to environmental officials.
In addition, obtaining government assistance after the storm also proved to be difficult due in significant part to documentation requirements that seemed excessive and inflexible.
For example, prior to receiving government assistance, applicants had to provide receipts for groceries that were lost during the storm, according to the report.
To help environmental justice communities deal with future storms, the report recommended increasing energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy. It also suggested creating community-controlled energy systems.
Also, the report called for using green infrastructure — employing soil and vegetation to manage runoff from storms and ease the impact of storm surges — to address what is called the heat-island effect.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the heat-island effect describes how built-up areas, such as cities, are hotter than nearby rural areas. This can boost summertime peak energy demand, driving up air conditioning costs, increase air pollutions and heat-related illnesses and mortality.
To address the air pollution issue, the report said the state may need to adopt tighter public policies and enforcement, particularly in environmental justice communities, to deal with climate change and address toxic air pollution.
Late last month the alliance released an overarching report that recommended a series of wide-ranging proposals to integrate the response to the possible impact of climate change — including rising sea levels — into state regulations, local land-use decisions, and allocation of government funding.
The alliance is a network of policymakers, individuals in the public and private sectors, academics, and business leaders trying to influence how New Jersey adapts to climate change.