The work Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, Ph.D., does to fight climate change in institutionally oppressed communities proves there’s a role for activism in science.
Jelks, an assistant professor of environmental and health science at Spelman College, centers her research on understanding how climate change impacts vulnerable communities’ health in urban environments and addressing its root causes. She focuses on people most susceptible to environmental risks and threats — Blacks and other people of color, as well as low-income residents.
For more than a year, the self-described “scholar activist” has been working on Urban Heat ATL, a research initiative that maps urban heat islands in Atlanta, a city affectionately known as “Hotlanta.” She serves as the initiative’s academic co-lead, and she co-launched it with colleagues from Spelman, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (co-founded by Jelks), the Partnership for Southern Equity, and the City of Atlanta. Together, they’re using temperature sensors to determine which Atlanta neighborhoods are the hottest. To date, they have nearly 2 million datapoints to analyze.
So far, the AAAS Member is seeing a correlation between urban neighborhoods the U.S. government redlined decades ago and those that suffer more from extreme heat. Urban neighborhoods with heat-trapping surfaces such as roadways, asphalt, and concrete from sidewalks, are hotter than those with abundant green spaces and urban vegetation, such as tree canopies.
In Atlanta and other historically redlined cities, natural amenities and ecosystems that help keep neighborhoods cool still don’t exist at the same levels as communities that were not redlined, Jelks observes. Instead, redlined neighborhoods attracted factories and industrial areas that polluted the air and water. Governments also built highways through redlined areas that contributed to air and noise pollution and, in many cases, split up and destroyed communities.
A 2021 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows Black people are 40 percent more likely to live in areas with the largest projected increase in heat-related deaths if Earth reaches 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures.
“(Redlining) really has this indelible imprint on what is happening today,” Jelks notes. “It was outlawed in the 60s, but the effects are still with us today. And it’s just mind boggling.”
Extreme heat can lead to heat stroke, heat stress and even death for people living, working, and recreating in these areas. People with preexisting conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, diabetes, and obesity, as well as the very young and elderly, may have greater sensitivity to heat stress too.
“That lack of ability for people’s bodies to cool down can put folks into overload, so to speak,” Jelks says.
Deaths attributed to natural heat exposure remain a continuing public health concern. Between 2004 and 2018, the number of heat-related deaths in the United States averaged 702 people annually according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s hundreds more than people who die during extreme weather events.
Once Jelks and her collaborators analyze their data, they’ll push for change at the local level and work their way up. They plan to make targeted policy recommendations and hope officials will implement them to protect these communities.
“We’re really using an environmental justice framework with this, with the understanding that extreme heat compounds what these communities are already facing and experiencing,” Jelks explains.
Jelks’ passion for environmental justice started early. Between the ages of 11 and 16, Jelks lived in a middle-class, predominantly Black neighborhood in Baton Rouge that’s situated along an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River known as the “Cancer Alley corridor.” The corridor, which ends in New Orleans, is home to more than 150 petrochemical plants and refineries and has the highest rate of air pollution-cased cancer in the U.S. Jelks remembers the air and water smelling and tasting like rotten eggs.
While she was living there, doctors diagnosed Jelks with hypopigmentation, a temporary condition that left large, light-colored splotches all over her arms and legs. Her mother was also diagnosed with breast cancer after living there, but survived. Even though Jelks can’t prove the pollution caused those health issues, it “awakened something in me,” she says, prompting her to explore how the environment impacts health and how communities can work together to address it.
Jelks now serves as a member of the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Council, as an editorial board member of Environmental Justice and as senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, among other positions. She also developed the Atlanta Earth Tomorrow Program, part of the National Wildlife Federation, which encourages youth of color to create and lead projects that advance solutions to address environmental issues in their communities and introduces them to environmental career pathways. In 2014, Jelks was named a Champion of Change by the Obama White House for her achievements.
Jelks wants scientists to understand that their work should go beyond the lab. Getting to the root causes of climate change means understanding not just physical and biological science, but also social science and how institutional racism shapes our communities. Understanding policies that advanced the extractive nature of industries that led to people of color and low-income people experiencing the brunt of environmental harms is important.
“I’m not just working with other scientists or formally trained scientists. A lot of my work really hinges upon community scientists,” Jelks says. “We’ve got to be very intersectional in our approach to addressing environmental changes, especially as they impact communities, and really as we look at large, complex problems like climate change."