Smith: Communities of color can't afford more climate change inaction
Close your eyes and think for a moment of the last time you went to the grocery store. Did you run in and out, quickly grabbing the produce and other items you needed? Or did you consider the hands that planted, picked, and packed the berries in your cart? Farmworkers play a critical role in our society, enduring dangerous conditions to keep food on our tables while trying to feed their own families. They've faced a double threat this past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented wildfires — all while receiving lower wages and fewer worker protections than most other workers. Farmworkers, who in Oregon primarily come from low-income Latino families, have to make impossible decisions about whether or not to risk their health and safety, working through wildfire smoke. They are undeniably on the frontlines of dual crises, and while we may see a glimmer of hope ahead for the end of the pandemic, the climate crisis isn't going anywhere. This summer's historic heatwave killed more than 100 Oregonians and turned our state into kindling for the fires that are burning up and down the West Coast. The Bootleg Fire has already burned through more than 400,000 acres, destroyed more than 400 structures and homes, and is nowhere near the point of containment.
We have stalled on climate action for too long, even as each week brings a new unprecedented, record-breaking disaster and our most vulnerable communities bear the brunt. Right here in Portland, neighborhoods primarily made up of people of color are on average 13 degrees hotter than wealthier neighborhoods in the city as a result of more concrete, fewer trees and green spaces, and a history of discriminatory housing policies going back more than 100 years.
The extreme heat disproportionately felt in Black and Brown communities is only getting more intense and more frequent, and presents dangerous and even fatal health threats, including heat stroke, respiratory challenges and exacerbation of existing health conditions such as heart disease. From our economy to public health, the climate crisis touches nearly every part of our lives. Meanwhile, brave Oregonians are risking their lives on the frontlines right now to keep our communities safe and healthy. We have to stop asking if we can afford to take action on climate change and start asking how can we afford not to? It's important to remember: it's not too late. We can still take bold action to preserve our beautiful public lands, our economy, and our way of life for future generations including my granddaughters and yours. We can ensure all workers, including those providing sustenance for millions of Americans, have the opportunity and protections needed to work safely.
We can invest in our infrastructure and renewable energy right here in Oregon. We can foster partnerships between local, state and federal governments to tackle this crisis from all angles. And we can elect leaders who understand the urgency and are not afraid to speak up against injustice, in all its forms. Next time you stock your fridge, I urge Oregonians to not lose sight of those putting their lives at risk to keep our food supply going. Our most vulnerable communities do critical, important work for our country and deserve protections to stay healthy and safe.
Loretta Smith is a former Multnomah County Commissioner and current candidate for U.S. Congress (lorettaforcongress.com).
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