Urban Heat Islands Disproportionately Affect Black Neighborhoods

A new study conducted by Portland State University and the Science Museum of Virginia has revealed that a history of redlining in America has forced African Americans to live in neighborhoods that are much more affected by urban heat waves.

As the authors explained,

“Vulnerable communities—especially those within urban areas in the United States—are disproportionately exposed to extreme heat.”

No other category of hazardous weather (not even hurricanes, tornadoes, or flooding) in the United States has caused more fatalities over the last few decades than extreme heat.

  • Especially in the summertime, extreme heat is the leading cause of death and has specific impacts on those communities with pre-existing health conditions (e.g., chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, cardiovascular disease, etc.), limited access to resources, and the elderly.

Unequal Effects of Urban Heat: The Guardian explained that exposure to extreme heat is unequal: temperatures in different neighborhoods within the same city can vary by 20F. It is mostly lower-income households and communities of color who live in these urban “heat islands” which have historically had fewer green spaces and tree canopy, and more concrete and pavements and thus are less equipped to cope with the mounting effects of global heating.

Compounding Figures: In a recent analysis NPR analyzed 97 of the most populous U.S. cities using the median household income from U.S. Census Bureau data and thermal satellite images from NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. In more than three-quarters of those cities, they found that where it’s hotter, it also tends to be poorer. Their conclusion:

“This means that as the planet warms, the urban poor in dozens of large U.S. cities will actually experience more heat than the wealthy, simply by virtue of where they live. And not only will more people get sick from rising temperatures in the future, we found they likely already are.”

Why This Matters: Racist policies going back decades (centuries, even) have ensured that minority communities were restricted to living near sources of pollution, floodplains, and hazardous waste sites. Therefore it’s tragically not surprising that African Americans are bearing the brunt pollution and emissions caused by white Americans. Experts are expecting more heat-related deaths as climate change brings more extreme heat–it’s for this reason that we have to ensure candidates running for office have robust environmental justice plans. Like the sort that Senator Cory Booker called for before he suspended his presidential campaign yesterday.

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