Climate Change Will Harm All, But Will Disproportionately Impact Various Demographic Groups

November 09, 2021

People of color are likely to be disproportionately harmed by climate change. However, the climate change harms will vary by racial and ethnic group. A recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report examines the effects of climate change by racial group. This article is the first of two articles summarizing key findings from the report. Though the EPA report is clear that its analyses are not intended to project risks for specific individuals, important findings regarding the disproportionate effects of climate change on demographic groups based on their geographic distribution can be established. Both pieces use the EPA analysis based on a 2°C level of warming from the 1986 to 2005 base period. This piece emphasizes the need to recognize the racial and ethnic differences of various groups, and the need to tailor policies in response to climate change to the specific risks facing each demographic group.

The EPA finds that there are some risks that most people of color are disproportionately vulnerable to, such as losing work hours due to extreme heat, and significant traffic delays due to high tide flooding. However, in this brief, we focus primarily on highlighting the differences in which impacts will be uniquely important for different racial and ethnic groups.

Black People are Particularly Vulnerable to the Effects of Climate Change

Unlike other people of color, Black individuals in the United States are disproportionately vulnerable in all six of the climate effects evaluated in this EPA report. Black individuals are uniquely vulnerable to extreme temperature mortality, with a 40 percent greater risk of living in areas with the greatest projected increases in mortality rates due to climate-driven temperature changes than non-Black individuals. Extreme heat is also expected to disproportionately impact Black individuals by leading to a loss of work hours. Lower-income individuals are most likely to work in weather-impacted industries such as construction and agriculture; thus, this incommensurate harm may lead to an inability for individuals to meet their basic needs and could compound the existing vulnerabilities of underserved groups such as Black individuals in the US. Extreme temperatures may also compel individuals to work in unsafe conditions and potentially cause adverse health outcomes. In short, Black individuals in the US are expected to be particularly vulnerable to the detrimental effects of high heat and humidity and to suffer from the resulting greater mortality rates, loss of work hours, unsafe work conditions, worse health outcomes, and potentially the inability to meet basic needs.

Black individuals are also markedly at risk of suffering from health-related issues and increased mortality as a result of worsening air quality. Most notably, Black individuals aged 65 and older are the only racial group with a greater comparative risk of dying prematurely from climate-driven changes in particulate air pollution. Similarly, Black children are expected to disproportionately suffer from increased asthma diagnoses as a result of climate-driven changes in air pollution.

Extreme heat events are only one of the ways Black individuals are likely to inequitably suffer from some level of inability to meet basic needs. There are two major forms of flooding worth considering as they are projected to not only increase in frequency and severity with climate change, but also to inequitably impact Black individuals. First, high tide flooding — flooding that occurs during particularly high tides in low-lying areas such as in coastal communities throughout the Eastern US—is expected to worsen as climate change leads to significant sea-level rise. Such “nuisance flooding” can cause traffic delays, block off roads, and limit access to nearby areas. Black individuals are 6 percent more likely to live in areas with the greatest projected traffic delays due to climate-driven high tide flooding. Traffic delays and limited mobility are just some of the possible effects of coastal flooding. Such flooding, which is set to increase as a result of climate-driven increases in both sea levels and storms, may cause property damage and the loss of whole swaths of land to inundation. Though Black communities are not more likely to be excluded from important adaptive and protective measures than other vulnerable communities, Black individuals are incommensurably predicted to live in areas that will lose the greatest shares of land to flooding.

Another important consideration is inland flooding. Unlike high tide and coastal flooding, which occurs almost exclusively on coastal lands as a result of sea-level rise, inland flooding occurs due to extreme rainfall. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of weather events such as storms, thus leading to greater rainfall and inland flooding. Such flooding is known to cause both financial and physical damages. Black individuals are expected to disproportionately suffer from inland flooding damages, such as losing homes to storms, facing increased health risks, and losing additional work hours due to an inability to commute.

Black individuals are uniquely susceptible to many of the detrimental effects of climate change in the US. These unequal harms may further exacerbate each other. For example, Black individuals are already disproportionately at risk of suffering from poor health outcomes as a result of extreme temperatures and air quality, but these health outcomes may be further worsened due to traffic delays or limited income as a result of job hour losses.

Latinx Individuals are Most Vulnerable to Losing Work Hours and Coastal Flooding Traffic Delays

Latinx individuals are the second-most vulnerable ethnic or racial group to harmful effects of climate change, as they are disproportionately vulnerable in four of the six categories evaluated in this report. Latinx individuals are the most susceptible of all demographic groups evaluated to losing work hours due to extreme heat and to facing significant traffic delays due to climate-driven coastal flooding. These two major impacts may, either individually or by compounding each other, limit the ability of Latinx individuals to meet their needs, as it restricts the number of hours they may work, both directly and by generating a lack of reliable access to the workplace. These inequitable risks may also harm Latinx individuals more directly, as both of these effects can generate significant health impacts: individuals may choose to work even in unsafe conditions to make ends meet or to keep their jobs under pressure from their employers and they may face difficulty accessing health care facilities in a safe and timely manner.

Not only are Latinx individuals subject to potentially worsened health outcomes indirectly, but they also face some direct and disproportionate effects on health as a result of climate-driven changes in pollution and heat. As for Black individuals, Latinx children are expected to have an incommensurably high increase in asthma diagnoses due to climate-driven changes in pollution.

In summary, Latinx individuals are also likely to be harmed disproportionately by climate change, but these detriments are presumably in the form of lost work hours due to high heat and traffic delays as a result of climate-driven high tide flooding. It seems likely that these effects could interact, thus limiting the access of Latinx individuals to adequate income, reliable transportation, health care facilities, and so forth.

Though Vulnerable to Fewer Risks, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Asians Still Face Some Disproportionate Harms

The EPA’s picture of how demographic groups other than Latinx and Black will be impacted by climate change is more nuanced. Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, and Alaskan Native individuals face disproportionate risks in only two or three of the six categories evaluated and have lower risks relative to their reference populations in three or four of the remaining impact categories. This does not mean these populations will not suffer from climate change, even though they are not historically the primary contributors to emissions. Rather, this should serve to further reinforce how various vulnerable groups are expected to differently suffer from climate-driven harms. This EPA report, and thus this discussion, also likely understates climate effects on Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, Pacific Islanders, and, to some extent, Asian individuals as it does not include Hawaii, US territories in the Pacific, and Alaska in its analysis.

Most notable for the Native American and Alaskan Native populations in the contiguous US, coastal flooding is expected to incommensurably harm these groups by causing significant physical and financial damages. These individuals are already more vulnerable to property damages, have difficulty accessing community resources during times of flooding, and are at a potentially increased risk of mortality. Native American and Alaskan Native individuals are also more likely to live in areas particularly excluded from adaptation and thus from protective measures. In other words, although Native American and Alaskan Native populations may not be particularly vulnerable in all categories evaluated in this report, they are uniquely susceptible to the monetary, cultural, and health-related detrimental effects of sea-level rise.

Pacific Islanders, like Native American, Alaskan Native, Black, and Latinx individuals, face an increased risk of losing work hours due to extreme heat and of facing significant traffic delays due to high tide flooding. Pacific Islanders, however, also face a particularly strong vulnerability to the detrimental effects of increased inland flooding, such as losing homes and property to flooding damages, suffering from increased health risks, and losing additional work hours due to an inability to drive or commute to work.

Asian individuals face unequal risks for only two of the six categories evaluated. They are projected to suffer disproportionately from increased childhood diagnoses of asthma due to climate-driven changes in particulate air pollution and from traffic delays due to coastal flooding. In all other categories, Asian individuals have lower relative risks than non-Asian individuals, notably a 45 percent and 30 percent lower risk of living in areas with the highest increases in mortality and labor hours lost due to extreme temperatures, respectively. These findings should not serve to underplay the risks faced by Asian individuals, but rather to highlight the need for pointed policy.

People of Color Are Not a Monolithic Group and Have Unique Policy Needs

The findings from the EPA report have two major implications. First and foremost, people of color are not part of a monolithic group. Various racial and ethnic groups are too often treated as a single group, without any attention paid to differences in culture, socioeconomic vulnerabilities, and existing disparities. This report provides further empirical evidence highlighting the falsity of viewing people of color as part of a singular group as the different racial and ethnic groups clearly face different harms from climate change.

Second, the EPA report should help guide policy decisions in responding to climate change. Policymakers should not assume that every community is a white, middle-class community. We have already seen the harm caused to communities of color from this type of assumption in federal disaster assistance. Additionally, policymakers cannot assume that there is a generic “community of color.” To best address the needs of people of color in response to climate change, policies must be focused on the specific relative risks of each racial and ethnic group.

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