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What Climate Science Loses Without Enough Black Researchers

Alan Flurry

Excellent journalism from Bloomberg in this expansive article on racism inside climate science, which includes UGA's J. Marshall Shepherd among the featured scientists who are remaking institutions that have excluded people of color. Persevering to become a leader while pursuing critical scholarship is more than should be asked of any scientist but the group featured here honors the profession and creates new knowledge while helping our country live up to its ideals:

Hurricane Katrina killed at least 1,200 people when it struck Louisiana in August 2005, causing more than $108 billion in damage. Morris said he was asked in its aftermath why residents of New Orleans and other high-risk areas didn’t leave town to escape disaster. He had to explain that many people already living in a vulnerable condition couldn’t leave.

White colleagues sometimes reveal their biases through naive questions, Morris recalled, and hurricanes are only the most extreme examples. Black and other marginalized populations have disproportionately suffered the consequences of old and new environmental hazards, be it so-called urban heat island effects—areas made hotter by buildings and roads retaining heat—in Chicago, St. Louis, or New York City, or hurricane-prone communities along the Gulf Coast and the Carolinas. A public-health study published in April concluded that people of color across all income levels and settings in the U.S. face harm from small-particle air pollution at a scale even greater than was previously understood. This week, researchers found that, in all but six out of 175 U.S. cities, people of color live in census tracts that are more susceptible to urban heat-island effects than non-Hispanic White people do.

The problem is also visible through a glance at what parts of the world are most saturated with scientific monitoring infrastructure: The temperate band that includes North America and Europe. While satellites have made progress in monitoring weather and dust storms of West Africa, there is still a legacy of neglect that hamstring African countries from understanding their weather.

“Africa is still the Dark Continent, to a large extent,” Morris said. “There’s been a hyper-focus on areas that are fundamentally more important to the scientists who were studying the problem.” Deeper collaboration between scientists in Africa and in rich nations would generate better data that strengthen climate models projecting future change.

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Image: J. Marshall Shepherd, a professor of geography and atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia, says scholarships aimed at turning students from marginalized groups into climate scientists often come too late. Photographer: Dustin Chambers/Bloomberg

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