How Unjust Policies Influence Who Experiences the Harms of Climate Change First

I will never forget late June 2021 in Portland—not because it was filled with family time, trips to the Pacific coast or even because of the pandemic—but because of the extreme heat beating down on the region. A “heat dome” trapped hot air over my home state of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, killing almost 1,000 people as temperatures soared to a whopping 120° F. Scientists have found that this wouldn’t have happened without climate change.

As a researcher working at the intersection of climate change, cities, and the people who live in them, I am well aware that these heat waves and extreme weather events will become more frequent and intense. This year, 2022, was no exception, as temperatures rose yet again. In fact, we ended an event held to commemorate lives lost and people harmed by the 2021 heat wave early, due to record high temperatures yet again.

A 2022 poll from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and NPR found that about three-quarters of people in the United States have experienced an extreme weather event in the past five years and almost a quarter of them have serious health problems as a result. What makes this work so challenging is recognizing that while we all experience harms from climate change, those who face social injustice and the repercussions of poor policy decisions are hurt the most.

For example, extreme heat not only leads to heat stroke and dehydration, but it also affects mental health and chronic pain. This impact is felt disproportionately by people of color. Native American, Latino, Asian and Black adults were more likely than their White counterparts to experience serious health problems as a result. My research has shown how socially unjust policies like redlining, which segregated neighborhoods, has made many communities of color and communities with lower wealth more vulnerable to the harms of climate change. During the 2021 heat dome, neighborhood temperatures varied by 25° F, and some of the hottest neighborhoods were redlined neighborhoods.

Fortunately, local organizations in Portland and in communities nationwide give us hope that solutions exist. The core questions we must answer are: What systems are in place that accelerate the impacts of climate change, and what can we do to prevent negative health outcomes?

Some of the short-term solutions to protect people from harm include:

  • Providing safe shelter for those who experience the worst extreme heat. We know who these people are because of factors like where they live or where they work.
  • Connecting state-level data on heat illness with community-based organizations that can inform and engage these residents and their neighborhoods around the impacts of extreme heat. Examples like California’s Health Places Index are pointing in a promising direction.
  • Identifying and implementing a system to notify people about their risk during extreme weather. Alert systems, like mass text messages from city officials, often do not reach those most at risk. A simple neighbor check-in system can help people stay healthy and safe. For years, New York City has saved thousands of lives as a result of simple “buddy systems” that support direct local engagement during extreme weather.
  • Along similar lines, municipal agencies can host neighborhood events to inform residents of local options to stay safe, like cooling centers.
  • Connecting at-risk populations, like people with physical disabilities, to accessible and inexpensive or free transportation to reach those safe spaces.

More medium- and long-term solutions will require systemic action but are integral to keeping people cool as temperatures rises. Examples include:

  • Updating housing codes. There are building codes that protect tenants from low temperatures, and the same should exist for high temperatures.
  • Supporting and building green infrastructure, trees, and access to parks. The legacy of redlining subjects communities of color to extreme heat. In times of heat, increased access to well-shaded parks can be a respite for residents AND they help to cool entire neighborhoods.
  • Upgrading energy infrastructure and related maintenance programs will ensure that mechanical cooling systems are able to perform during extreme events.

Individuals and community organizations can make a big difference, but state and federal policy solutions are critical to achieve meaningful action at the needed scale. The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act by the U.S. Congress includes many climate change- and equity-related components. And on the state level, places like Washington state, which has extreme heat and poor air quality from wildfires, will now cover the cost of air purifiers and air conditioning for people who receive Medicaid benefits.

We may not be able to stop climate change in its tracks, but we do have control over our personal responses and how we strengthen systems so they support communities. The good news is that 77 percent of people in America identify climate change as a crisis or a major problem. Recognizing the issue is one of the first steps to addressing it. This, along with our sense of community, can help keep our neighbors safe and healthy when an extreme weather event strikes.

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