The Unequal Impact of Climate Change on Minorities

Climate change is the defining issue of our time, and we are at a defining moment. From changing weather patterns that threaten food production to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, climate change impacts are global and unprecedented.

These environmental changes will not affect everyone equally, however. Communities of color and low-income communities in the United States and around the world will be impacted the most. Climate change and poverty are deeply intertwined. Those in poverty have a higher chance of experiencing the ill-effects of climate change due to the increased exposure and vulnerability. For example, if their homes or place of work become flooded or burn down in a fire, they are less likely to recover than their wealthier counterparts that can afford to buy a new home or find a new place of work.

There are many ways in which climate change can affect minorities. A large proportion of these groups live in poverty. Indigenous peoples rely on the land and are more likely to live in geographical regions and ecosystems that are the most vulnerable to climate change. These include polar regions, humid tropical forests, high mountains, small islands, coastal regions, and arid and semi-arid lands, among others. The impacts of climate change in such regions have strong implications for the ecosystem-based livelihoods on which many Indigenous peoples depend.

The implications of climate change are similar for Black people and other minorities as well. For example, Black people living in Los Angeles are almost twice as likely to die as other Los Angelenos during a heat wave. This is because they are segregated in the inner city, making them more susceptible to the “heat island” effect, where, due to a lack of adequate greenspace, temperatures are magnified by concrete and asphalt. Yet, they’re also less likely to have access to air conditioning or cars. Similarly, Latinos make up 77 percent of California’s agricultural workforce and will likely see economic hardship as heat waves caused by climate change lower agricultural production. Not to mention how deadly heat waves can be for the workers themselves.

Climate change will also exacerbate the number of extreme weather events we receive and their frequency. When hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, there were major floods that followed. New Orleans, Louisiana, received 10 inches of rain before the hurricane even surged over the city, leaving 80% of the city underwater. Overall, Black people and other minority residents made up 58 percent of those whose neighborhoods were flooded, though they encompassed just 45 percent of the metropolitan population. Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ homeless population was estimated at 4,900, nearly two and a half times larger than before the hurricane. Even today some people have yet to recover.

Protecting the most vulnerable ensures that we better protect everyone. Lessons from Hurricane Katrina show us that if we had properly maintained the levees to protect the Lower Ninth Ward, the devastating flooding of New Orleans could have been avoided. Similarly, by choosing policies that reduce the dangers facing low-income neighborhoods and people of color, we will ensure that climate policy will be effective for the entire nation. Altogether this illustrates the need for policymakers to consider environmental justice when addressing climate. Ignoring the inequal effects of climate change could reinforce and amplify current and future socioeconomic and racial disparities.

Additional Reading

The Climate Gap and how to close it — University of California, Berkeley

Killer Heat in the United States — Union of Concerned Scientists

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