It’s impossible to cover climate change without reporting on its unequal impact on disenfranchised communities, and the 22 local newsrooms in LMA’s Covering Climate Collaborative are working to “connect the dots” through their local reporting.

“Climate change will exacerbate existing inequalities and worsen the vulnerabilities of already marginalized communities,” Dr. Robert Bullard told reporters in the Climate Collaborative this month. Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University, is known as the “father of environmental justice.”

Dr. Robert Bullard

Bullard noted that, from air pollution and heat exposure to access to critical resources, including post-disaster aid, the data overwhelmingly shows that the most vulnerable communities — including people of color and low-income individuals — are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. With many parts of the country facing extreme heat events, Bullard used the example of shade and tree canopy, and research showing people of color were more likely to live in “nature-deprived” areas. “If you are living in an area with no trees, no green canopy, and you’re basically deprived of nature,” said Dr. Bullard, “it has behavioural impacts, social impacts, health impacts.”

LMA launched its Covering Climate Collaborative on Earth Day 2021 to help news organizations report more deeply on the local impacts of climate change, and to connect people in their communities with meaningful actions they can take. One goal of the 22 participating local news organizations is to make the connections between climate change and social justice issues. Already, powerful local reporting is being produced and shared among the collaborative members highlighting and connecting audiences with climate change in their communities, especially related to this summer’s extreme heat events.

Several news outlets have examined the issue of neighborhood tree cover and access to shade. In its story, “Heat waves hit low-income Bay Area neighborhoods harder due to less trees, shade,” KGO-TV in San Francisco documented the ways that lack of tree shade caused disproportionate impacts on low-income neighborhoods.

The Sacramento Bee examined the problem of “heat islands” and why the city was among the hardest-hit in its story: “Sacramento ranks among worst cities for ‘heat island’ neighborhoods. New study shows why.”

In Chicago, WBEZ examined “tree inequity” in urban areas, and the city’s efforts to address the issue in its report: “A New City Agency May Try To Save Chicago’s 4 Million Trees — And Plant More.” As WBEZ’s city government reporter Mariah Woelfel wrote in July, tree inequity will be critical for the city’s new tree advisory board to consider in its decision making. “I was intrigued by the number of community activists that showed up to small committee meetings to speak about the connection between trees and public health in underfunded communities,” Woelfel said, “which is why we pursued the story.”

In May, climate collaborative member Planet Detroit published a story about local residents and organizations pushing the Michigan Public Service Commission to consider environmental justice and public health considerations in how utilities plan to meet future energy needs: MPSC considers requiring utilities to account for public health costs of future electric generation

Their reporting found that living closer to coal and gas-fired power plants exposes local residents to hazardous air pollution. “It’s part of a broader trend of inequity in Detroit’s infrastructure systems,” said Planet Detroit founder Nina Ignaczak, “whereby poor communities pay a disproportionate amount of the cost and either receive subpar service, have a lack of access, or as in this case, bear a disproportionate health burden.”

“Our readers had never seen this information at the local level,” Ignaczak said. “Readers were surprised to learn that communities of color bear the health burden of our electrical generation — it’s not generally what many think of when they think about environmental injustice and racism.”

But it’s not just readers who are paying attention. As part of the story, Planet Detroit spoke to the chair of the MPSC, who is responsible for setting new rules on how utilities must plan for the future. While the public health impacts were not among its considerations, Ignaczak said, “the issue is now on the radar of the MPSC.”

Solutions to climate justice start locally

As these examples showcase, efforts to address climate justice inequities often begin at the local level, triggered by concerns raised by local residents and community groups. And, as Dr. Bullard reminded the climate collaborative, local news sources are typically the most trusted. “Bottom up is the best opportunity to make change,” said Dr. Bullard. Local news organizations are uniquely positioned to identify these inequities; and the news outlets in LMA’s covering climate collaborative are dedicated to connecting those dots, and reporting on solutions being developed in their local communities.

“We have to address equity as if our lives depended on it,” said Dr. Bullard, “because in many cases they do.”