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How extreme heat will disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities

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(NEW YORK) — The health effects from extreme heat will soon take an even bigger toll on disadvantaged communities, according to a new report.

As global temperatures continue to climb, a growing number of people living in disadvantaged communities will be impacted by health-threatening heatwaves, a report released Wednesday by the ICF Climate Center, an environmental solutions firm, found. As many as 54 million people in at-risk communities could be threatened by extreme heatwaves by 2050 under a high-emissions scenario, compared to 500,000 people today, according to the report.

The report combines the latest climate projections with the ICF Climate Center’s climate risk analytics platform, ClimateSight, to understand how people living in marginalized communities — ones that have been “overburdened by pollution and underinvestment” — will be exposed to extreme heat in the coming decades as well as how the increasing temperatures will affect the health of the residents.

The results point to a significant increase in disadvantaged communities’ potential exposure to extreme heat as well as a spatial component of these increases in potential exposure, Mason Fried, director of climate science at ICF, told ABC News.

“We’re seeing spatially across the contiguous United States both an intensification of exposure in historically hot areas — those hot areas are only going to get hotter — and the consequences in those areas,” Fried said. “But there’s an expansion of exposure into regions that have not experienced very hot temperatures.”

The Southeast and Midwest could see 15 to 30 additional energy-impacting heat days, while most of Texas, the central plains, Louisiana and the Florida peninsula are expected to experience 50 or more additional energy-impacting heat days under a moderate emissions scenario, the report found.

Electric grids in the Northeast and New England could be strained under these conditions as well, as grids in those areas were generally not designed to operate in such extreme heat, the authors found.

While historically it was the Southwest and southern Texas that saw disadvantaged communities experiencing at least 24 energy-impacting heat days per year, by 2050 overburdened communities in the South, Midwest and Southwest will be exposed, according to the report.

The findings of the report are “not surprising,” given how much research has already been done to show that the most disenfranchised communities around the world will be hardest hit by climate change, Jennifer A. Burney, chair of global climate policy and research at the University of California, San Diego, told ABC News. Burney’s own research has looked into the urban heat burden experienced by poorer communities.

Heat illness is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the world, with more than 1,220 people dying from heat-related illnesses every year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The urban heat island effect, urbanized areas that experience higher temperatures than outlying areas due to an abundance of roads and buildings, adds tremendously to the heat burden that people in disadvantaged communities are experiencing, Amy Bailey, director for climate resilience and sustainability at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, told ABC News.

Neighborhoods that had been redlined in the 1930s — a post-Great Depression practice involving a pattern of lending discrimination — are among the hottest in major cities, a 2019 paper that studied 108 urban areas nationwide, found.

Solutions such as whitewashing pavement and planting trees are known solutions to mitigating the heat island effect.

The report called for prioritizing planning efforts for populations identified to be at elevated risk and engaging stakeholders and decision-makers within those communities to ensure they have agency in the implementation of programs.

The report and its confluence of key public health, equity and energy resilience data points are important for planners, community-based organizations and health professionals, Bailey said.

Communities will especially need to prioritize measures to make places like libraries and malls established cooling centers by creating a “cooling budget” that could help subsidize businesses as well as offer safe options for residents, Burney said.

Planners will also need to make investments to increase grid resilience and community-level solutions, Bailey said.

“It’s our hope that it provides, at first some, some, you know, the data and analytics to help size up and understand the problem,” Fried said.

Federal initiatives in recent years have reflected the severity of future heat impacts, according to the report.

Last year, Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, an interactive map that monitors data points such as income, asthma rates, and wildfire risk with the aim of determining and prioritizing the most disadvantaged communities for funding. However, race and ethnicity are not included as indicators in the tool, but are “included as information only and are not considered as a part of the tool’s methodology,” according to the website, a collaboration among the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

In July 2023, the Biden Administration also announced several actions to mitigate extreme heat, including the launch of Heat.gov, which provides science-based information to understand and reduce the health risks of extreme heat, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “Let’s Talk About Heat Challenge,” which funded 10 community groups and localities across the country to help protect underserved communities from heat illness.

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