Jaco: Climate change will hit St. Louis’ poor the hardest

Watch Channels 2, 4, and 5’s coverage of the long-running floods around St. Louis, or listen to any radio coverage of tornadoes ripping through southwestern Missouri and Jefferson City, and you’ll notice two phrases are missing: “climate change” and “urban poor.”

To local weather forecasters and station executives, all of this is just bad weather, unconnected to a rapidly heating earth. Maybe they don’t believe they’re connected. Retired Fox 2 meteorologist Dave Murray, for instance, has said for years that human-caused climate change is “unproven.” Or maybe it’s because they know audiences don’t seem to want to hear about climate change.

MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted about global warming, public opinion and the media last year, saying, “Almost without exception, every single time we’ve covered (climate change) it’s been a palpable ratings killer, so the incentives (to cover global warming) aren’t great.”

Ignoring climate change’s role in increased floods, droughts, heat waves and severe storms also ignores a pile of studies showing that the urban poor will get hit hardest. But if you ignore the problem, it’s pretty easy to ignore the victims. Last year’s National Climate Assessment, which President Donald Trump’s regime tried unsuccessfully to bury, did not.

Hundreds of government scientists broke down their findings geographically. And their predictions for the Midwest read more like today’s news, with floods, increased severe storms, drought and, of course, heat. St. Louis by the 21st century’s end will see anywhere between 15 and 50 days a year over 100 degrees every year.

That will turn St. Louis’s miles of brick buildings into a giant heat island. The elderly, infants and toddlers, and people unable to afford skyrocketing electric bills to run air conditioning will die first from heat exposure. According to a 2014 report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, rising temperatures will short out huge swathes of the electric grid, potentially cutting off electricity, and air conditioning, to tens of millions of people at a time.

As temperatures climb, air quality will get worse, especially in cities such as St. Louis, surrounded by river valleys and already known for wicked humidity. As increased heat and humidity trap polluted air, people will get sick and die from respiratory illnesses. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation already ranks St. Louis as the sixth worst city in the country for asthma. Because of inability to afford regular health care, and the indoor pollution in older inner-city apartments and homes, African-Americans already suffer from asthma at three times the rate of the overall population. That means the urban poor, already the least able to withstand rising temperatures, will be the first to become seriously ill from declining air quality.

The government scientists’ report also predicts a drastic increase in severe storms and floods, with disasters like those of the past month becoming regular features. Floods along the Mississippi River and its tributaries will regularly inundate hundreds of thousands of low-income people, almost all of them black, that live in the flat-as-a-pool-table flood plain that runs miles inland on the Illinois side of the river.

The study predicts that more than 2,000 people a year in the Midwest will die prematurely from the cascading dominoes of high heat, poor air quality, and declining quality of both the food and the water supply. The biggest threat to public health, and especially the health of the urban poor, will come from new diseases that have mutated in the fecund climate of global warming, and from diseases carried by a population forced into mass migration trying to escape the heat.

This is the future unless we take drastic action to slash greenhouse gas emissions.  And it was caused by polluters supported by conservatives who denied science, profiteered from oil and coal, and installed as a matter of tribal faith the right-wing claim that none of this is happening.

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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