The Inequity of Extreme Heat Must Be Addressed

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Climate change is raising temperatures, but it’s not being felt equally. In the U.S., people of color and low-income communities are exposed to higher temperatures and more smog than white residents. Two new studies show this correlation

  • A survey of temperatures across 175 of the largest U.S. cities found that people of color and people living below the poverty line experience twice as much of the urban heat island effect. In all but six cities, people of color had higher heat exposure than white residents, the study published in Nature Communications found.
  • A more localized study looked at unscheduled hospitalizations for respiratory issues in California on hot days with high pollution levels. The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed a correlation between a lower median income (by ZIP code) and a higher rate of breathing emergencies. 

Why This Matters: Heat is the top weather-related killer, beating out hurricanes and sea-level rise for that grim title. And like many other climate change impacts, fenceline neighborhoods feel the heat first and worst. Low-income communities are also less likely to be equipped to handle rising temperatures: their homes may not have air conditioning, or they may not have health insurance to deal with heat-related health impacts. As climate change increases days of extreme heat, public policy must be enacted to help protect vulnerable people. 

Here’s how New York State is working to do exactly this. 

Can’t Take the Heat: Even though heat is implied in “global warming,” one of the earlier terms for the climate crisis, the U.S. remains pretty unprepared for increasingly hot days. 

We tend to not be very-well-positioned to respond to heat,” Brian Stone, director of the urban climate lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology told the Washington Post.“There’s not a single city in the United States that’s well-positioned for the heat risk we’re facing this summer.”

Solutions can be as simple as planting trees, which increases shade and reduces the heat island effect (as well as being a nice mental health boost). But truly taking on heat is a comprehensive task. As Jane Gilbert, Miami’s first Chief Heat Officer told the Washington Post earlier this month, “We need to look at questions like, how do you integrate solar and shade? We need a land-use policy. We need a policy on the way we design our streets and parks and our housing stock. We need to change our habits because this is not just business as usual.”

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