Many of the environmental disruptions resulting from human-caused climate change—including intensifying heat waves, hurricanes, flooding events, and wildfires—disproportionately affect the health and safety of marginalized and low-wealth communities.
Facts for Any Story
Climate change poses risks for all people, but especially threatens the health and well-being of those in marginalized groups. That is in part because these individuals disproportionately live and work in areas more vulnerable to certain climate-related disasters but also because they often lack the resources to prepare for or fully recover from climate-related setbacks and are more likely to face other hurdles such as poor health, inadequate nutrition, or language barriers.1Disaster Technical Assistance Center, “Greater Impact: How Disasters Affect People of Low Socioeconomic Status,” Supplemental Research Bulletin, DTAC Supplemental Research Bulletin (Disaster Technical Assistance Center, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, July 2017) View Source
As U.S. summer temperatures rise, people of color living in cities are more likely to face health-threatening extreme temperatures than their white counterparts—a disparity that research has linked to historic “redlining” (discriminatory practices by mortgage lenders and others that resulted in segregated neighborhoods of color that were subsequently granted fewer community resources and amenities).2Jeremy S. Hoffman, Vivek Shandas, and Nicholas Pendleton, “The Effects of Historical Housing Policies on Resident Exposure to Intra-Urban Heat: A Study of 108 US Urban Areas,” Climate 8, no. 1 (January 2020): 12. View Source
A study of more than 100 U.S. cities found that land surface temperatures in previously redlined areas are approximately 4.7°F higher than in non-redlined areas—a difference attributable in part to a lack of cooling tree canopy and disproportionate amount of heat-radiating materials like asphalt.2Jeremy S. Hoffman, Vivek Shandas, and Nicholas Pendleton, “The Effects of Historical Housing Policies on Resident Exposure to Intra-Urban Heat: A Study of 108 US Urban Areas,” Climate 8, no. 1 (January 2020): 12. View Source
Non-Hispanic Blacks in U.S. cities are 52% more likely than their non-Hispanic white counterparts to live in areas where the risk of excessive heat is exacerbated by an abundance of heat-radiating surfaces such as concrete and asphalt and lack of trees and other cooling vegetation.3Jesdale Bill M., Morello-Frosch Rachel, and Cushing Lara, “The Racial/Ethnic Distribution of Heat Risk–Related Land Cover in Relation to Residential Segregation,” Environmental Health Perspectives 121, no. 7 (July 1, 2013): 811–17. View Source4Neil Debbage and J. Marshall Shepherd, “The Urban Heat Island Effect and City Contiguity,” Computers, Environment and Urban Systems 54 (November 1, 2015): 181–94. View Source5Ming Wen et al., “Spatial Disparities in the Distribution of Parks and Green Spaces in the USA,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine : A Publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine 45, no. Suppl 1 (February 2013): 18–27. View Source6Joan A. Casey et al., “Race, Ethnicity, Income Concentration and 10-Year Change in Urban Greenness in the United States,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 14, no. 12 (2017). View Source
Several studies have found that U.S. Blacks suffer higher death rates than whites during urban heat waves and have identified several contributing factors, including higher rates of overcrowded living conditions, lack of central air conditioning, and less locally available green cooling space such as parks.5Ming Wen et al., “Spatial Disparities in the Distribution of Parks and Green Spaces in the USA,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine : A Publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine 45, no. Suppl 1 (February 2013): 18–27. View Source7Marie S. O’Neill, Antonella Zanobetti, and Joel Schwartz, “Disparities by Race in Heat-Related Mortality in Four US Cities: The Role of Air Conditioning Prevalence,” Journal of Urban Health 82, no. 2 (June 1, 2005): 191–97. View Source8Alana Hansen et al., “Vulnerability to Extreme Heat and Climate Change: Is Ethnicity a Factor?,” Global Health Action 6 (July 29, 2013). View Source9Linda Mazur et al., Indicators of Climate Change in California: Environmental Justice Impacts (California Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, 2010). View Source
During the 1995 Chicago heat wave, which caused more than 700 heat-related deaths over five days, concerns about utility costs deterred many low-wealth residents from using their air conditioners. Research has also shown that low-wealth communities are more vulnerable to extended power outages due to, for example, lack of access to backup generators.10Reinhard Kaiser et al., “The Effect of the 1995 Heat Wave in Chicago on All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality,” American Journal of Public Health 97, no. Supplement_1 (April 2007): S158–62. View Source11Joan A. Casey et al., “Power Outages and Community Health: A Narrative Review,” Current Environmental Health Reports 7, no. 4 (December 1, 2020): 371–83. View Source12Sonal Jessel, Samantha Sawyer, and Diana Hernández, “Energy, Poverty, and Health in Climate Change: A Comprehensive Review of an Emerging Literature,” Frontiers in Public Health 7 (2019): 357. View Source
Farm workers, who are predominantly from low-wealth communities of color, experience disproportionately greater exposures to extreme heat—a growing health risk in areas where summer temperatures are rising. From 1992 to 2006, the rate of heat-related deaths among U.S. crop workers was almost 20 times that for all U.S. non-military workers.9Linda Mazur et al., Indicators of Climate Change in California: Environmental Justice Impacts (California Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, 2010). View Source13“Heat-Related Deaths Among Crop Workers – United States, 1992—2006.” View Source
Studies indicate that simultaneous exposure to air pollution and extreme heat—both of which are linked to climate change—exacerbates a range of health problems, including the already elevated risk of pregnancy and child-birth complications among women of color.14Bruce Bekkar et al., “Association of Air Pollution and Heat Exposure With Preterm Birth, Low Birth Weight, and Stillbirth in the US: A Systematic Review,” JAMA Network Open 3, no. 6 (June 18, 2020): e208243–e208243.” View Source15Tarik Benmarhnia et al., “Decomposition Analysis of Black-White Disparities in Birth Outcomes: The Relative Contribution of Air Pollution and Social Factors in California,” Environmental Health Perspectives 125, no. 10 (October 4, 2017): 107003. View Source
Nationally, there are higher proportions of people who are poor, uninsured, or unemployed living in areas designated by FEMA as 100-year-flood zones (defined as having at least a 1% probability of flooding in any given year). One result: Hurricanes, which are growing stronger and more destructive due to climate change, disproportionately affect people of color and low-wealth communities.16Yi Qiang, “Disparities of Population Exposed to Flood Hazards in the United States,” Journal of Environmental Management 232 (February 15, 2019): 295–304. View Source17Phil Brown et al., “Hurricanes and the Environmental Justice Island: Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico,” Environmental Justice 11, no. 4 (2018): 148–53. View Source18Jayajit Chakraborty, Timothy W. Collins, and Sara E. Grineski, “Exploring the Environmental Justice Implications of Hurricane Harvey Flooding in Greater Houston, Texas,” American Journal of Public Health 109, no. 2 (2019): 244–50. View Source19Robert Bullard et al., “Environment, Disaster, and Race After Katrina,” Juliet Ellis and Van Jones Vol. 13-1 (2006). View Source
Urban and coastal flooding, made more likely by climate change, disproportionately impacts low-wealth and disadvantaged people, who are more likely to live in flood-prone areas and lack the resources to protect against and recover from flood-related damage and disruption.20Engineering National Academies of Sciences, Framing the Challenge of Urban Flooding in the United States, 2019. View Source21Timothy W. Collins, Sara E. Grineski, and Jayajit Chakraborty, “Environmental Injustice and Flood Risk: A Conceptual Model and Case Comparison of Metropolitan Miami and Houston, USA,” Regional Environmental Change 18, no. 2 (February 2018): 311–23. View Source22Neil Debbage, “Multiscalar Spatial Analysis of Urban Flood Risk and Environmental Justice in the Charlanta Megaregion, USA,” Anthropocene 28 (2019): 100226. View Source
Native Americans, Blacks, and Hispanics living in areas prone to wildfires—which are increasing in size and intensity as a result of climate change—are less likely to live in homes that feature fire protections or have the resources to rebuild after a fire disaster compared to their white neighbors.23Ian P. Davies et al., “The Unequal Vulnerability of Communities of Color to Wildfire,” PLOS ONE 13, no. 11 (November 2, 2018): e0205825. View Source
Pitfalls to Avoid
The large-scale averages used to measure the effects of climate change can obscure many of its most significant impacts that occur on local scales. Some communities are far more affected than others, and people who are already disadvantaged often bear the brunt of the consequences. Featuring data and voices from these communities can tell a more complete story. You can start by reaching out to community organizations that represent marginalized groups or neighborhoods and looking for more specific information on the uneven distribution of harm.