Climate Change's Added Impact on Low-Income People and Communities

Co-authored by: Lissa Domoracki and Carrie Gilbert

 [This is the first in a series of articles about climate change and its impact on people and low-income communities. These articles reflect the Shriver Center’s initiative to raise awareness about these issues and to advocate on behalf of these communities in the current debates surrounding federal climate change legislation.]

The images of polar bears hungry and stranded on a lone block of ice made notorious by Al Gore are heart-wrenching, but the tragedies and injustices of climate change exist here at home also. Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath put one facet of these inequalities on display and should serve as a wake-up call. Climate change affects us all, but there are several specific ways in which it will have an even greater impact on low-income communities than others:

(1)    Heat waves brought on by climate change hit low-income communities hardest. Studies show a positive correlation between the presence of heat-trapping surfaces, like black asphalt, and community poverty. These studies also show a negative correlation between tree cover and community poverty. Less tree cover combined with more heat-absorbing materials in low-income communities raise the temperature, actually making it hotter in these communities. This is known as the “heat island” effect

(2)    Low-income individuals are more likely to live in poorly insulated homes and less likely to have air conditioning or easy transportation to cooling centers to cope with these elevated temperatures.

(3)    Pollution is disproportionately concentrated in low-income neighborhoods and increased temperatures speed its transformation into harmful ambient ozone that aggravates respiratory conditions such as asthma. Additionally, low-income individuals are less likely to have health insurance or access to medical care, likely worsening the health problems associated with exposure to pollution.

(4)    Low-income communities are the most vulnerable to natural disasters. Because of climate change, these extreme weather events are expected to greatly increase in frequency and severity. Low-income people are much less likely to carry disaster insurance that would allow them to quickly rebound from the damages caused by such events. 

Climate change is a serious problem for everyone, but the consequences of climate change are even more severe for low-income populations.

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