Publication Date August 3, 2017

In Sweltering South, Climate Change Is Now a Workplace Hazard

United States
Mr. Guerra at work. Seasonal temperatures in coastal southeast Texas are about 1.5 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were in the early part of the 20th century, the state climatologist said. Photo: Alyssa Schukar, The New York Times

Residents of working-class communities in the Sun Belt often cannot afford to move or evacuate during weather disasters. They may work outside, and they may struggle to cover their air-conditioning bills. Pollution in their communities leads to health problems that are compounded by the refusal of most Sun Belt state governments to expand Medicaid access under the Affordable Care Act.


For the poor, the challenges of climate change are not abstract. John W. Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University who is the Texas state climatologist, says that in coastal southeast Texas, seasonal temperatures are about 1.5 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were in the early part of the 20th century.

In Texas, as in other parts of the world, that seemingly small average warming leads to a much greater chance of extreme heat waves, scientists say.


Professor Bullard said that part of his mission was getting people to understand the particular danger that storms like Ike can pose for working-class people. “We are bringing in the Black Lives Matter folks and talking climate justice and the black lives that were lost in New Orleans because of climate change and because of who was left behind on roof tops,” he said, referring to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “Racism left them behind on rooftops.”


The unleashing of the fossil energy sector that Mr. Trump has championed could have repercussions more immediate than the global climate. In Houston, predominantly African-American neighborhoods like Sunnyside and Pleasantville have been dealing with pollution from the energy sector for years.

Ana Parras, her husband, Juan, and her stepson, Bryan, have been educating Houston residents about the dangers of living in communities surrounded by refineries and chemical plants. And they speak from experience. Ms. Parras recently began having breathing problems herself.


The Parras family has spent much of its time in Manchester, a community in Houston that is one of the most polluted places in the country. Because of Houston’s liberal land-use laws, the community is ringed by an oil refinery, a chemical plant, a car-crushing yard, a wastewater treatment plant and an interstate. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency found toxic levels of seven carcinogenic air pollutants in the neighborhood.