2020 National Climate Student Award Essayist

Books Motivate Foundation is pleased to announce that Stella Carman, a Pullman High School student from Whitman County, WA is the 2020 National Climate Essay Student Competition Winner. Stella Carman’s award-winning essay will no doubt inspire countless students across the United States to compete in the 2021 National Climate Essay Student Competition. We congratulate Stella and her teacher, Johanna Brown who ensured that Stella had the information available for her to meet all entry requirements. Thank you to our donors and sponsors who make this student award program possible. Read Stella’s climate essay here!

Stella Carman

Storm clouds and smoke plumes: How climate change disproportionately affects marginalized communities

We punched through waterlogged drywall with our fists and kicked shelves from walls. Stomping through rotten flooring, we turned devastation into a childish game, the silliness a momentary distraction, replaced by heartbreak as we drove, covered in mud and mold, down streets strewn with wedding photographs, baby clothes, and kitchen tables, the remnants of so many lives now reduced to sloppy muck. Just days before, Hurricane Harvey had ripped apart the gulf coast of Texas, the latest in a series of more frequent and powerful storms.

For weeks, my father and I volunteered to help gut some of the badly flooded houses. As the wreckage in the streets turned from soggy belongings to countertops and cabinets, the gated community in the back of my suburb had a line of garbage trucks at the ready, while the poor, mostly black and Latino neighborhoods had debris crowding the streets for months. The city paid no mind to those who could not afford their own waste services; inner city neighborhoods were left abandoned and further marginalized.

In November of that year, my family moved to Pullman, Washington, a small town on the eastern edge of the state. Months earlier, while Houston drowned in Hurricane Harvey, this small, rural expanse of woodlands and wheat fields made national headlines for having the poorest air quality in the U.S., the result of a summer of record-breaking wildfires and suffocating smoke. Even with the stark contrast between states, their demographics, and the nature of these disasters, it was easy to see that the problems had grown from the same catastrophic phenomenon: global climate change.

Like hurricane season on the East Coast, increasingly violent wildfires have become a fact of summer in the American West. According to a recent study, “anthropogenic contributions to climate change are estimated to have led to a doubling of the total area burned by forest fires in the western US between 1984–2015” (Abatzoglou). Current climate models estimate that the Northwest will lose roughly 1.1 million acres per year to wildfires in the next twenty years (ecology.wa.gov). The economic consequences of such destruction are often the focus of attention when we talk about the problem of climate change, while the impact to human health is largely overlooked. Just like the marginalized communities in Houston during Hurricane Harvey, Washington’s indigenous tribes are among those whose health is at highest risk.  

Although air pollution levels are decreasing in urban areas across the country, levels of ambient particulate matter, the component of air pollution known to damage the lungs, are rising in the Northwest. This elevation has been directly attributed to the increasing frequency of wildfires. Evidence consistently demonstrates that exacerbations of asthma and chronic obstructive lung disease are associated with wildfire outbreaks. A 2018 study estimates that “the health costs of wildfire smoke exposure range from $11–20 billion/year in the continental US” (Reid). 

Historically, public health crises have disproportionately impacted vulnerable populations who often have both limited resources and limited access to health care. Among the most vulnerable in the United States are Native Americans. On average, Native American life expectancy is 5.5 years shorter than the general population. In Washington state, home to 29 federally recognized Native American tribes, the disparity is even more pronounced: the average life expectancy of a Native American male is 69.6, almost ten years below the national average (Dankovchik). 

These alarming statistics stem, in part, from the high rates of poverty on reservations, but they are exacerbated by lack of access to health-related education and basic health care. In 2017, the federal budget for Indian Health Services (IHS) was $1,297 per person. In comparison, $6,973 were allotted per inmate in the federal prison system (Whitney). Congress consistently approves lower budgets for IHS, forcing healthcare administrators to cut staff and limit available services. This also means that funding for more or newer facilities is completely inaccessible. So, although respiratory illnesses caused or exacerbated by forest fire are not more common in Native Americans than the general population, the gap in healthcare funding, facilities, and access to care make their occurrence more dire. Once again, those with fewest resources bear the greatest share of the burden. 

Although state-wide efforts have been made to address climate change, they have been met with resistance. In 2016 and again in 2018, Washington voted down a proposed carbon tax. While political progress at the state level has been slow, Native American tribal leaders seem to have a greater sense of urgency. In 2019 over 250 people from 41 tribes attended a climate summit in Spokane (Waltower). In October 2020, tribal leaders will reconvene to discuss and develop a policy platform to be used in moving climate action forward in the U.S. and around the world.

As we look to Native leaders and government officials for guidance, we must not make the mistake of believing the problem will be solved by politics alone. We must work to create a widespread culture of environmentally conscientious behavior, one that has the power to influence public policy, corporate practices, and popular attitude. I firmly believe that action must be taken, so in the fall of 2019, I created an environmental club at Pullman High School, not with the hope of creating a tight circle of like-minded students, but as a way to bridge the ideological gaps that stand between us. Only by understanding how deeply the health of our planet connects us, despite state lines and tribal boundaries, can we successfully address the challenges that lie ahead. 


Works Cited

Abatzoglou, John T, and A Park Williams. “Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 113,42 (2016): 11770-11775. doi:10.1073/pnas.1607171113

Climate Change Increases the Risk of Wildfires. Washington State Department of Ecology. https://ecology.wa.gov/Air-Climate/Climate-change/Climate-change-the-environment/Wildfire-risks. Accessed May 25, 2020

Dankovchik, Jenine et al. “Disparities in life expectancy of pacific northwest American Indians and Alaska natives: analysis of linkage-corrected life tables.” Public health reports (Washington, D.C.: 1974) vol. 130,1 (2015): 71-80. doi:10.1177/003335491513000109

Reid, Colleen E.; Maestas, Melissa May. Wildfire smoke exposure under climate change: impact on respiratory health of affected communities. Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine vol. 25,2 (2019): 179-187.

Waltower, Shayna. “40 Native American Tribes Attend Spokane Climate Change Summit” KREM. July 30, 2019.

Whitney, Eric. “Native Americans Feel Invisible in U.S. Healthcare System” NPR. December 12, 2017.

U.S. Climate Student Essayists Awards

2019 National Climate Student Award Essayist – Jasmine DeMaria

Read the award-winning essay – click here

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