How Climate Change Impacts Disadvantaged Communities in the US
Updated: Jan 22
By Julia Scott
Rising global temperatures present an urgent danger to our communities, our environment, and the future of life on our planet. The resulting increasingly severe weather events disproportionately impact our most vulnerable populations. Due to historic systemic and systematic discrimination against minority and exploited groups in its many forms, ecologically and socially vulnerable communities experience the impacts of climate change with greater severity than people with generational wealth, better access to education and more gainful employment due to restricted access to resources and housing necessary for improving living conditions and recovering from natural disaster.
Record-breaking rain fell in Houston, TX during Hurricane Harvey (Christopher Joyce, TPR.org)
In the mid-20th century, a system of “redlining” systematically kept neighborhoods racially segregated by designating those most populated by people of color to be less dependable for lenders issuing a mortgage or home loan to potential homeowners. Those same historically black neighborhoods have largely remained in black families or populated with low-income rental properties. They have more asphalt, which retains and radiates heat, and fewer green spaces, which would contribute to cooler temperatures.
During the hottest days of the year, urban and low-income communities are 5 to 12 degrees hotter on average than majority white neighborhoods that were designated by banks as “safe investments” because of their higher percentage of white residents, and had more outdoor spaces with grass, shade, and trees. As temperatures rise all over the world, these communities are getting hotter than they were just fifty years ago. Anderson and Bell found in their 2010 study that a one degree Fahrenheit increase in heat increases the risk of death from heat related complications such as respiratory and cardiac distress by 2.5%.
The “Detroit Wall” built in Detroit in 1941 to segregate neighborhoods in anticipation of the influx of white families to the area (Todd McInturf, Detroit News)
The implications and challenges of climate change and the intersectionality of adapting to the coming changes cannot be overstated. Here in the US, programs that have been created specifically to aid low income individuals and families in recovering after natural disasters are not intended for use in repairing a home. Repairing unsuitable housing is not the responsibility of the department of Housing and Urban Development, so people dependent on section 8 housing may remain in homes not conducive to healthy living due to leaking plumbing, a crumbling roof, and a lack of power, heat, or air conditioning.
Damage to and loss of housing can leave a family chronically unhoused or living in conditions that put their health in jeopardy. Furthermore, accessing grants and assistance can be a difficult, slow, and bureaucratic process that people do not have the time or ability to navigate, particularly if they do not speak English fluently. In these ways and more, climate change has far greater implications for people living with less wealth, access, and ability than those with more advantages of geographic place, health, financial, and social status.
Governments all over the world have begun to debate and adopt new environmental regulations. President Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Accord when he took office and more recently joined world leaders in Glasgow for COP26 to finalize the agreement. The US, along with 192 other parties, committed to goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide funding to developing states to aid in mitigating climate change and adapting to its impacts. Even with a public financial commitment, vulnerable communities all over the world and in the United States struggle to adapt to rising temperatures and recover after natural disasters.
The NRDC says the number one way to make an impact in the fight against climate change is to contact your representatives and talk to your personal network about climate issues. In our representative democracy, politicians work to build rapport with their constituents in order to secure re-election; putting pressure on your local leaders to vote in favor of environmental reforms makes them aware of the issues that matter to you and incentivizes them working for environmental protections. Public actions to counteract climate change all , but we have to keep in mind that the greatest contributors to pollution are fossil fuels and the companies and private interests that invest in fossil fuels.
Lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry are working hard to protect government subsidies that are meant to protect consumers from high fuel prices but as we see in 2021 with rising gas prices, those subsidies are not producing their desired effect and instead keep dirty energy producers in power and prevent progress from being made in green energy. Contacting your representatives and holding them and the companies contributing most to greenhouse gases and global warming accountable for their support of major sources of pollution is another way to impact the battle to protect our environment and, undeniably, our most vulnerable communities.
Julia is a 2020 graduate from the George Washington University Political Science program, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, singing in a choir, climbing rocks, and looking for work. She has two cats.
Check out her out on LinkedIn Julia Scott | LinkedIn.
Redclift, Michael (2000) “Addressing the Causes of Conflict: Human Security and Environmental Responsibilities”. Review of European Community and International Environmental Law 9(1): 44–51.
Anderson, G Brooke, and Michelle L Bell. “Heat waves in the United States: mortality risk during heat waves and effect modification by heat wave characteristics in 43 U.S. communities.” Environmental health perspectives vol. 119,2 (2011): 210-8. doi:10.1289/ehp.1002313