Climate Change Targets 'Socially Vulnerable' Populations, EPA Report Shows

New government analysis confirms what many already know: The impacts of climate change in America fall disproportionately on Black and Hispanic communities.

Hurricane Ida Makes Landfall In Louisiana Leaving Devastation In Its Wake
Dina Lewis rescues items from her home (R) after it was destroyed by Hurricane Ida on August 30, 2021 in Laplace, Louisiana. Scott Olson / Getty Images

On Aug. 29—exactly 16 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans—Hurricane Ida ripped through Louisiana like a chainsaw through Styrofoam. From there, it ambled across Mississippi and Alabama, then further north through Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Finally, it bore down on New Jersey, New York, and New England. When all was said and done, Ida had killed at least 71 people in eight states and caused an estimated $95 billion in damage.

Although the fallout is still being surveyed, a new report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests the lives and property lost will belong mostly to minority and low-income communities.

Titled "Climate Change and Social Vulnerability in the United States: A Focus on Six Impact Sectors," the report arrived on Sept. 2, mere days after Ida. In it, the EPA asserts the most severe impacts from climate change fall disproportionately to “socially vulnerable” communities, including racial and ethnic minorities, those with low income, people who lack a high school diploma, and those ages 65 and older.

People in those communities, the EPA says, are most likely to experience six types of climate change impacts: health effects from poor air quality; death due to extreme temperature; labor hours lost by weather-exposed workers due to high-temperature days; traffic delays due to high-tide flooding and extreme weather; coastal flooding from sea-level rise; and property damage or loss from inland flooding.

Among the most vulnerable populations are Blacks and Hispanics. Assuming that global average temperatures rise by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the EPA says Black individuals are 34% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma diagnoses and 40% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in extreme temperature-related deaths. Under the same scenario, Hispanics and Latinos are 43% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected reductions in labor hours due to extreme temperatures, and 50% more likely to live in areas with the highest estimated increases in traffic delays due to rises in coastal flooding.

“The impacts of climate change that we are feeling today, from extreme heat to flooding to severe storms, are expected to get worse, and people least able to prepare and cope are disproportionately exposed,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement. “This report punctuates the urgency of equitable action on climate change. With this level of science and data, we can more effectively center EPA’s mission on achieving environmental justice for all.”

The EPA’s report is well-timed not only because of Ida but also because of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which announced on Aug. 30 that it is establishing a new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. The first office of its kind at the federal level to address climate change and health equity, its mission will be to protect vulnerable communities who disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and climate-driven disasters at the expense of public health.

“History will judge us for the actions we take today to protect our world and our health from climate change. The consequences for our inaction are real and worsening,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “We’ve always known that health is at the center of climate change, and now we’re going to double-down on a necessity: fighting climate change in order to help protect public health in our communities.”

HHS said the new office will leverage lessons learned during the pandemic and apply them to the climate crisis.

“COVID-19 highlighted the inequities faced throughout our nation. Unfortunately, some of the same groups disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 will be the same groups struggling the most with the effects of climate change on our health,” explained HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Rachel L. Levine. “We will use the lessons learned from COVID-19 to address these disparities, prioritizing and protecting the nation’s health.”

As for the EPA’s report, it’s just the latest entrant in an ever-growing body of research that demands action on climate change from citizens, businesses, and governments.

View Article Sources
  1. "Climate Change and Social Vulnerability in the United States." U.S Environmental Protection Agency, 2021.