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New evidence suggests California’s environmental policies favorably protect whites.

New evidence suggests California’s environmental policies favorably protect whites.

New evidence suggests California's environmental policies preferentially protect whites
New evidence suggests California's environmental policies preferentially protect whites
This study was conducted using polluting and demographic data. A,B Average surface NO2 and tropospheric PM2.5 concentrations in the 2020 pre-shutdown period in California, United States. C Median income ($USD), in each census block from the U.S. Census Bureau 2018 5 year American Community Survey (ACS). D-F The percentage of each census block group’s population that is Hispanic or Asian. Data from the ACS. G Schematic showing the slower-changing (assumed static over shorter periods of time) and higher-frequency factors which contribute to heterogeneous pollutant exposures. Credit: UC San Diego

According to new research from the University of California San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, Asian and Hispanic communities suffer significantly more from air pollution due to economic activity than predominantly white neighborhoods throughout California.


The journal published the study. Nature SustainabilityCalifornia’s environmental regulations, as a whole, preferentially protect white, nonHispanic residents from air pollution.

The study focused on 2020, when shelter-in-place orders were issued by the state in response to COVID-19. The researchers compared air pollution patterns before and after the shutdown using data from both public and private air monitor networks and satellite measurements of the pollutant nitrogen dioxide. The researchers looked at many factors, including how many communities were sheltering-in place, and found that neighborhoods with high Hispanic and Asian populations saw disproportionately high levels of air pollution during the period of the “in-person economy” being shut down. This means that the reverse is true when business as usual.

They also found that Black communities did not see the same disproportionate improvement in air quality during the shutdown. Black California residents were more polluted than whites during shutdowns that only required businesses were open. The same was true when COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. This means that electricity generators, power plants and other sources of emission that were not controlled during the shelter in place orders are regularly exposing these communities to dirtier atmospheres.

The paper also shows that low-income communities are more likely to be exposed to pollution when the economy is fully operating. These neighborhoods also experienced cleaner air during the shutdown. The researchers didn’t account for income in the analysis that led to the higher levels of pollution for Hispanic and Asian communities.

“Income only accounts for about 15% of the disproportionate reduction in air pollution experienced in Asian and Hispanic communities during this shutdown,” stated Jennifer Burney of the Marshall Saunders-Chancellor’s Endowed chair in Global Climate Policy and Research, School of Global Policy and Strategy. “This may be surprising to some because people tend to confuse income and race because systemic discrimination in society is hard to face. We also accept that individuals can ‘buy cleaner air through higher housing costs in less polluted areas.

Burney stated, “The COVID shut down gave us a window in to what pollution patterns look and feel like when most economic activity is off. It also showed that income does not explain the racial bias in how our economy creates or distributes pollution.”

This is what Burney and his research team consider evidence of a failure in environmental policy. In California, all emissions are subject to regulationtransportation, energy, construction and other industries have to meet strict environmental standards.

Burney stated that “one would think that in an environment-friendly state, where we track emissions, our regulatory system might be able to protect everyone equally.” “But this is really strong evidence for systemic bias. Pollution sources include transportation, businesses, restaurants and other businesses. All of this adds up in business-as usual conditions. The total system is tipping, exposing ethnic and racial minorities to more pollution.”

Poor air quality can have serious health implications. Poor air quality is associated with higher rates of infant and adult mortality, as well as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Recommendations for policies to address systemic environmental racism

Although the study was limited to California, researchers believe that air quality disparities between ethnicities may be present in other states. The paper also includes policy recommendations. The paper includes a variety of policy recommendations. For example, transportation is the largest polluting source that was affected by the pandemic’s slowdown. Policies that reduce transportation emissions could have significant impacts on California’s underrepresented communities.

It is important to note that income alone cannot be used to determine if environmental strategies will achieve strong racial equity. This means that environmental regulations should be evaluated using different metrics to ensure they meet environmental standards and promote equity.

Katharine Ricke (assistant professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy and Scripps Institution of Oceanography) said that there is no clear, quantitative equity criteria used in regulatory analysis to protect against environmental racism. “For example: An industry can build a factory by completing an environmental assessment report. But that report does not have to include a set metrics to show how different demographic groups will be affected. It could be a significant shift to make environmental regulation more equitable if industries were required to run atmospheric models to prove that the proposed facility will not disproportionately impact minority neighborhoods.

The authors recommend that communities be included in the planning process if there are proposed changes to their environment that could affect air quality.

Pascal Polonik (a Scripps Oceanography doctoral candidate) said, “This is not new. But procedural justice also is critical.” “Communities must be engaged in meaningful ways to ensure everyone has access to what should have been a democratic process.”

Polonik said that communities could benefit from improved access to information such as the data from crowd-sourced sensors used in the study. These sensors are located in places that are least likely be affected by unjustified exposure to pollution, unfortunately.

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Other paper authors include Richard Bluhm (assistant professor at Leibniz University Hannover and fellow at the Department of Political Science, UC San Diego); Kyle S. Hemes (postdoctoral researcher at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment); Luke C. Sanford (assistant professor at Yale University’s School of the Environment); Susanne A. Benz (postdoctoral fellow, Dalhousie University); and Morgan C. Levy (assistant professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy and Scripps Institution of Oceanography).


Low-income households are most affected by the lack of information on pollution exposure


More information:
Jennifer Burney, Disparate air pollution reductions during California’s COVID-19 economic shutdown, Nature Sustainability (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41893-022-00856-1. www.nature.com/articles/s41893-022-00856-1

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University of California, San Diego

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New evidence suggests that California’s environmental policies favorably protect whites (2022, April 7).
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