By Dylan Lenzen

With 2015 marking the hottest year in the historical record, the threat of climate change continues to grow. Not only will the United States and other countries have to move rapidly to try and mitigate climate by eliminating the greenhouse gas emissions produced by our society, but they must also make sure that cities, communities, and individuals throughout the world are protected from the likely effects of the warming that we have already created. Incredibly powerful storms, like hurricane Katrina, are just one type of environmental disaster that we might expect to grow in both frequency and intensity in the future. Without adequate protections, cities and communities in the United States could suffer incredible harm, with potentially billions of dollars in damages from single storms. Much of that harm is likely to be experienced by economically impoverished and minority communities throughout America.

An example of the potential threat that a future of intense storms provides, can be found in Houston, Texas. In a story co-published by Pro-Publica and the Texas Tribune, the authors describe the incredible risks that superstorms pose for the city, even following warnings like Hurricane Ike that many hoped would inspire future safeguards for its citizens. Despite the $30 billion in damages the storm caused in 2008, the city has failed to implement any meaningful protections that have been proposed, such as an “Ike Dike,” that would involve massive floodgates at the start of Galveston Bay to block future storm surges. At the same time, scientists predict that a future perfect storm, with even greater strength than Ike, will occur and is only a matter of time before is realized. In fact, the likelihood that it could occur in any given year is “much higher than your chance of dying in a car crash or in a firearm assault, and 2,400 times as high as your chance of being struck my lightning.

When a perfect storm hits Houston in the future, the greatest damage is likely to result from the Houston Ship Channel, which is lined by one of the world’s highest concentration of oil, gases, and chemicals. A future storm with enough strength to disrupt this region could have major effects to the American economy that depends on these resources. But even more troubling is the potential environmental disaster that could result from a powerful storm. Over 3,400 industrial storage tanks are spread throughout the region, containing oil, gas, and unknown chemicals that scientists say could cause an environmental disaster on par with the BP oil spill. And as the state senator representing much of this industrial region, Sylvia Garcia, states, “My district is working-class, Latino, and [has] many people in poverty. Even if we told them to move to safe harbor, they don’t have the car or the way to get there.” So clearly, as is the case in many other environmental disasters or hazards, the burden is overwhelmingly felt by minority and low-income communities.

In conclusion, not only do we need to hold our leaders accountable for mitigating climate change through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to make sure that they are establishing the right safeguards and building new infrastructure that will keep Americans safe from the dangers that climate change poses, especially the most vulnerable communities.

Find out more about hurricane risk in Houston