Vulnerable communities, particularly low-income and people of color — are more likely expected to suffer harmful health effects from climate change, according to a new peer-reviewed report released today by the EPA.
The report shows the degree to which four “socially vulnerable populations” — defined based on income, educational attainment, race and ethnicity, and age — might be more exposed to the highest impacts of climate change.
There are social, political and economic reasons underlying these vulnerabilities, as well as a legacy of racism. People of color were — and are — still often relegated to housing and land in flood-prone, less desirable areas.
These households are also located near industrial polluters, whose emissions can worsen asthma and cardiovascular disease. In urban areas, they often live in hotter neighborhoods that lack trees, parks and other amenities enjoyed by white and more affluent people.
The report analyzed several impacts of climate change on these environmental communities: extreme temperatures and their effects on health and labor; air quality and health; coastal and inland flooding and health; and coastal flooding and traffic. Because of data limitations, only the Lower 48 states were included in the analysis, the EPA wrote. Hawai’i and Alaska will be included in future reports.
As a benchmark researchers used a 3.6-degree Fahrenheit increase in global temperatures, relative to the years 1986 to 2005. This is equivalent to 2 degrees Celsius. Under different carbon emissions scenarios, the Earth expected to cross that temperature threshold between 2040 and 2055.
- Black individuals are projected to face more severe effects of climate change for all the impacts analyzed in this report, compared to all other demographic groups. With a benchmark increase in temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius — Black people are 34% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma diagnoses. This rises to 41% under 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, or 4 degrees Celsius of global warming.
Black people are 40% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected increases in extreme temperature-related deaths. This rises to 59% under the 7.2 degree threshold.
- Since Latinos often work in weather-exposed industries, such as construction and agriculture, they are especially vulnerable to the effects of extreme temperatures. With the benchmark increase in global warming, Latino individuals are 43% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected reductions in labor hours due to extreme temperatures. With regards to transportation, Latinos are about 50% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest estimated increases in traffic delays due to increases in coastal flooding.
- American Indian and Alaska Native individuals are 48% more likely than people of other races and ethnicities to currently live in areas where the highest percentage of land is projected to be inundated due to sea level rise. American Indian and Alaska Native individuals are also 37% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected labor hour losses in weather- exposed industries due to climate-driven increases in high-temperature days.
- Asian individuals are 23% more likely than non- Asian individuals to currently live in coastal areas with the highest projected increases in traffic delays from climate-driven changes in high-tide flooding.
The South is projected to experience higher increases in childhood asthma diagnoses as a result of poor air quality exacerbated by climate change, the report said. Two North Carolina cities included in the analysis, Greensboro and Charlotte, are expected to see higher rates of death because of extreme temperatures, even at a lower increase of 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
“The impacts of climate change that we are feeling today, from extreme heat to flooding to severe storms, are expected to get worse, and people least able to prepare and cope are disproportionately exposed,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “This report punctuates the urgency of equitable action on climate change. With this level of science and data, we can more effectively center EPA’s mission on achieving environmental justice for all.”