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The DePaulia

The Student News Site of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student News Site of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Life expectancy disparities in Chicago prompt calls for environmental justice

Nicole+Bogash+and+her+son+Ryder%2C+5%2C+look+on+as+the+Kankakee+River+floods+the+nearby+banks+and+portions+the+of+downtown+area%2C+affecting+several+business+across+the+river%2C+Friday%2C+Jan.+26%2C+2024%2C+in+Wilmington%2C+Il.+
Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP
Nicole Bogash and her son Ryder, 5, look on as the Kankakee River floods the nearby banks and portions the of downtown area, affecting several business across the river, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in Wilmington, Il.

January 2024 was the warmest January ever recorded, following 12 months of unprecedentedly high temperatures around the world, according to the New York Times.

Warmer temperatures, more extreme weather events and a lower life expectancy are all consequences of human-caused climate change, largely perpetrated by the burning of fossil fuels, according to Mark Potosnak, DePaul professor of environmental studies.

The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and Reuters reported that chronic air pollution lowers the average global life expectancy by more than two years. 

“The bad news is that (burning fossil fuels) creates local air quality issues for the people who live right there, but you also contribute to global climate change,” Potosnak said. 

On the other hand, he said when carbon emissions are reduced, like when high-emitting power plants are shut down or less cars are on the road, there is an immediate health benefit to people in the surrounding area that also contributes to global emissions reduction.

Raymond Lodato, professor of environment, geography and organization at the University of Chicago, said residents and governments often accept a certain level of pollution because they believe there is no economic alternative to burning fossil fuels.  

“Our environmental laws very rarely ban any particular practice or pollutant, they set an acceptable level,” Lodato said. “Then the question becomes, who is getting sick? Who is more likely to face risks to their life expectancy?”

New York University’s School of Medicine reported that Chicago has the largest life expectancy gap between neighborhoods, with Streeterville residents expected to live to 90 years old, while just 9 miles away in Englewood, residents are only projected to live to 60 years old. 

According to Lodato, this 30-year life expectancy gap is an environmental justice issue, which he said is the process of addressing the disproportionate negative impacts of climate change on communities of color.

He cited the asthma crisis on the South Side as an example of inequitable climate effects.

According to the American Lung Association, 16% of Chicago families have a child with asthma. The South Side Pediatric Asthma Center said around 20% of children on the South Side have been diagnosed with asthma, which they say does not account for those who suffer undiagnosed. 

Grace Gallant, a DePaul senior, shares a passion for environmental justice and engages in climate action through work at the DePaul Urban Garden. 

“I see environmental justice as a way to bring awareness to the fact that we don’t have equitable access to nature, and it’s a shame because every person can benefit from a close relationship with the natural world,” Gallant said. 

By Maya Oclassen

Besides pollution, climate change poses both direct and indirect risks that impact life expectancy. 

Potosnak said amplified severe weather events like drought and flooding can impact agricultural output and food supplies. Less crops also make the price of food go up, which adversely affects low-income communities. 

To mitigate the potentially disastrous effects of a warming earth, Potosnak stressed the importance of engaging local communities and educating people so sustainable solutions can expand. 

Gallant said even small community efforts to promote climate action can have lasting impacts. 

“The community that we build at the garden club has a lot of potential for organizing and getting people together to work towards the shared goal of creating sustainability in all of our lives,” he said. 

Lodato, the University of Chicago professor, said advocacy at the community level, then at the governmental level is essential for making laws that big corporations will adhere to. 

“It should be a bottom-up situation where people are pressuring the government because legislation is what companies will respond to,” he said. 

In 2022, the Biden administration introduced the Inflation Reduction Act, a landmark $369 billion investment in climate action that allocates specific funds to historically underserved communities. 

The IRA is projected to reduce U.S. emissions by 40% from 2005 levels by 2030 and includes $60 billion dollars specifically for communities hardest hit by climate change.

Chicago has had its own experience with governmental steps to reduce the effects of climate change. In 2008, after Chicago was named a severe ozone nonattainment area by the Environmental Protection Agency, former Mayor Richard M. Daley put forth a Climate Action Plan that promised to address disparities and create climate solutions. 

Though this plan had some successes, DePaul’s Center for Journalism Integrity and Ethics reported that it did not deliver on key promises of planting 1 million trees by 2020 and being on track to reduce emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. Daley’s successor, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, disbanded Chicago’s Department of Environment in 2011. 

After the Inflation Reduction Act was passed in 2022, the city of Chicago reported that federal funds were allocated to help the city significantly reduce emissions by 2040.  Mayor Brandon Johnson also supported environmental justice and decarbonization provisions. 

Potosnak said Chicago is a transportation hub for the nation, which burns a lot of fossil fuels, but “gives us leverage to start fixing things.” 

Gallant said that change is very possible, but needs to begin with a strong desire for improvement and an end to environmental complacency. 

“We shouldn’t accept that our homes are being polluted,” Gallant said. “We can change our situation by joining the urban garden, attuning ourselves about how to live more sustainably, but also coming together to challenge the government and the corporations that are putting our lives at risk.”

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