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Risk or Refuge: Inequality in Exposure to Environmental Vulnerability in California


This study assesses people’s cumulative exposure to environmental vulnerability over time, taking into account both natural hazards and pollution. How do race and class affect cumulative exposure? For people who move after a natural disaster, who moves to safer, greener places as opposed to riskier, more polluted places? And if there are groups or places that buck the trend, what governance of demographic conditions explain this?

In asking these questions, we seek to bring together the disparate fields of environmental justice and climate vulnerability. Systemic racism has historically caused low-income and non-white residents to be disproportionately exposed to toxic waste, harmful substances, and pollution. These groups have lower socio-economic and spatial mobility, resulting in many people living for years in more polluted places. By contrast, people’s exposure to natural hazards is more mixed by racial and class. Low-income and non-white groups are often less able to recover from natural disasters and more targeted for property buyouts or evictions, resulting in higher post-disaster relocation or displacement.

Using California as a study case, we seek to understand the holistic picture of people’s lives, given diverging responses to stay or move in response to different environmental harms. This project innovatively uses residential address histories from credit data to track household level migration within California between 1995 and 2020.

This project is a collaboration with Dr. Kendra Bischoff and Dr. Laura Tach, both sociologists at Cornell. It is funded by a Cornell’s Migrations: Global Grand Challenge grant.


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