With the release of An Inconvenient Truth on DVD and twelve states suing the EPA for refusing to regulate emissions, global warming is in the American consciousness more than ever before. The most startling fact about the issue to me isn’t that U.S. contributes more to the problem than any other country (or several of those other countries combined) or even that the U.S. is only one of two countries that hasn’t ratified the Kyoto Treaty (the other is Australia). No, the most startling fact is that the problem has been known since the 70’s. Known—and ignored. Known—and deliberately contorted to preserve the capitalistic equation of $$ > all.
There’s no doubt now that the consequences of our indifference have been grave. Nor is there any doubt that it will get much, much worse in a much, much shorter period of time than anticipated. Still, many Americans are stepping up to the plate to do their part in reducing pollutants that contribute to global warming. They are turning off unneeded lights, buying energy efficient appliances, riding bikes more, driving less, purchasing hybrid cars, and recycling. We might accuse large segments of the population of laziness and disregard for others if they don’t do these things, but at least one population that is a significant contributor of CO2 levels is imply unable to comply: the poor.
There are a number of factors that must be considered in regards to the poor, not only because it is ethical to do so, but because it ultimately effects so many other aspects of society—including global warming.
1) Substandard Housing. People live in the best place they can afford to live. All too often, the working poor can’t afford homes with good insulation, energy efficient windows and appliances, and effective heating systems. People with disabilities living on a fixed income have even fewer options. This significantly increases their energy use, draining further financial resources and increasing their contribution to global warming.
Energy assistance and weatherization programs often run out of funding before they can even begin to reach a majority of poor families. These households very often will not pressure their landlords to upgrade windows, appliances, or heating systems because they are afraid of being evicted. The federal definition of substandard housing is set ridiculously low.
According to Habitat for Humanity, one of every seven American households live in substandard housing conditions. Elaborations on these statistics, their sources, and details can be found here. The problem is tremendous for any number of reasons.
Recommendations: Increase support for low-income families in substandard housing, whether they are renters or homeowners. Increase support for weatherization programs. Landlords, upgrade outdated appliances, insulation, and heating systems as soon as possible.
2) Substandard Vehicles. When the working poor need a new car, they don’t head to the local Toyota lot and buy a hybrid with monthly payments higher than their wage. They look in the classifieds for an older, used car that they can purchase with cash on hand. These cars usually get lower gas mileage and emit more pollutants than their newer counterparts.
Large families and individuals with disabilities have compounded problems with vehicle replacement because they must find transportation that meets their space and physical accommodation needs. Have you ever seen a wheelchair accessible van that seats six? It’s worth noting that higher income families also have this problem because there are currently no hybrid or alternative fuel vans on the American market.
Recommendations: Increase funding for research into fuel alternatives and hybrid vehicles. Write letters to car companies encouraging them to increase their emission standards and decrease prices on low-mileage used vehicles. Offer to carpool with coworkers. Employers could offer mass transit passes to employees.
3) Substandard Education. No Child Left Behind reduced the quality of education for all students. Steadily decreased funding combined with steadily rising demands for perfection on standardized tests has created an educational system where students are “taught to the test.” Critical reading curriculum has been reduced to a bare-bones understanding of literary terms (forgotten a week after school’s out), history curriculum focuses on whatever is politically correct at the time, and science curriculum equates to memorization of the periodic table and graphs of the water cycle. Not only is global warming not on the tests (and therefore not taught), but students aren’t given the skills they need to understand the concept if they come across it elsewhere.
Schools in low-income communities have it twice as bad. With the majority of school funding based on property taxes, these schools have been managing on fewer resources for a long time. As a result, they were already “behind” when No Child Left Behind was passed, are being pressured even more to raise test scores, and are receiving even less support than in the past with tremendous budget cuts over the last several years.
Our children (not our grandchildren!) are going to be facing the worst of global warming consequences. They need to be provided with the tools to understand the problem and be part of the solution. Frightening when we consider that “58 percent of low-income fourth graders cannot read, and 61 percent of low-income eighth graders cannot do basic math. Of the roughly 20 million low-income children in K-12 schools, 12 million aren’t even learning the most elementary skills.”
Recommendations: Communities should organize non-profit associations to continually raise funds for education. Recreation departments or local youth clubs should take on the responsibility of athletic programs so that school funding is used for curriculum. Community members should donate to their local schools and write to Senators and Representatives to decrease focus on standardized test scores and increase funding for education. Parents, talk to your kids about global warming. If you haven’t seen it, watch An Inconvenient Truth and explain it to them, or watch it together and discuss it (the film may be frightening to less mature viewers). Be a role model and make choices to reduce your family’s contribution to pollutants. Teach them what they can do to be part of the solution because they most likely won’t learn it at school.
4) Rural Problems. Many issues are unique to rural populations and the number of impoverished families is disproportionately larger in rural communities. Long distances to jobs, schools, health care facilities, and shopping venues greatly increase the amount of necessary driving. Mass transit systems aren’t feasible for most of these places due to lower populations and higher costs. Recycling systems are more difficult to access, so a greater amount of renewable resources is lost. Fewer homes are energy-efficient and more wood-burning heating systems are in place. Access to hybrid cars and alternative fuels is greatly reduced and more expensive. All of these things create a difficult and overwhelming situation for families wishing to make life-style changes to reduce their impact on global warming.
Recommendations: Rural families should carpool to work and shopping venues. Plan grocery lists to last longer, reducing the number of trips to the store. Rural communities should encourage the development of alternative fuel systems like biodiesel and ethanol. This will help farmers, too! Recycling facilities should be made more accessible.
It’s important to note that some families, landlords, communities, and government officials are already doing these things—but not enough. Equally important is the fact that raising the minimum wage to a reasonable level and reworking the federal budget so that social services, health care, and education get a larger share would greatly decrease this problem. Reduce the number of poor people and you reduce not only the need to support them, but also global warming.