Dangerous heat waves are exacerbating systemic racial inequalities, and high temperatures are expected to further harm communities of color if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, according to new research.
Extreme heat is one of the deadliest climate hazards facing humanity due to the climate crisis, which contributes to thousands of deaths in the United States each year.
Heat waves have been occurring more frequently since the mid-20th century, and there is a growing consensus among climate scientists that dangerous episodes of high temperatures and humidity will become substantially more common, more severe, and lasting without adequate action. to curb global warming.
Now, new data provided exclusively to The Guardian by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reveals:
The killer heat is already affecting communities unequally: Between 1971 and 2000, US counties with more than 25% black residents endured an average of 18 days with temperatures above 100F (38C) compared to seven days per year for counties with less than 25% of African Americans.
By the middle of the century, if the goals of the Paris climate deal are not met, US counties with larger black populations will face 72 very hot days. a year on average, compared to 36 days in counties with smaller African-American populations, according to UCS.
Latino communities also suffer disproportionately: Historically, counties with more than 25% Hispanic / Latino residents experienced 13 very hot days a year, reaching 49 by the middle of the century if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced.
“Significantly higher exposure to extreme heat is an artifact of where black people tend to live in the United States, which is a legacy of slavery,” said climate scientist Kristina Dahl, who conducted the county division analysis for The Guardian.
The findings come as The Guardian launches a series this week, the climate countdown, on the implications of Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate deal on November 4, a day after the presidential election. .
Dahl added: “Even if rapid measures are taken to limit the future rise in temperature to 2 ° C, the United States can expect a significant increase in the frequency of extreme heat that will affect people of color more severely as a result of racism. systemic. ” If we exceed that goal, the increase and disparities will be huge. Extreme heat is a problem of climate justice. “
Official figures show that this year is on track to be at least the second hottest on record, although some scientists warn that 2020 could even beat 2016.
Meanwhile, coronavirus cases are skyrocketing across much of the country amid stifling temperatures making it difficult to comply with life-saving protective masks and orders to stay home, and life-saving heat mitigation measures. such as public cooling centers and swimming pools are difficult to provide.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement sparked widespread international condemnation because failure to reduce greenhouse gases will have devastating consequences on all aspects of life, including our ability to work, study and play.
By the middle of the century, a third of the 481 largest cities in the United States will withstand temperatures above 105F (40.5C) at least 30 days a year, an increase of just three cities historically (El Centro and Indio, California, and Yuma, Arizona), according to a 2019 UCS Historical Report.
By the end of this century, this would increase to 60% of cities, equivalent to 180 million Americans at risk of life-threatening complications from heat stroke and heat exhaustion. In this scenario, children would not be able to play outside and farmers would have difficulty bringing crops to market.
Agriculture, an industry that relies on cheap migrant labor, many workers, especially undocumented immigrants, often lack access to crucial mitigation measures, such as regular breaks, shade, medical services, adequate clean water, and health insurance.
The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting people of color and native communities the hardest, and Dahl’s new analysis adds to a growing body of evidence linking systemic racism to the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis, including heat. extreme.
Islands of heat
In U.S. cities across the country, heat waves disproportionately affect underserved neighborhoods thanks to the legacy of discriminatory housing policies that deny homeownership and basic public services to people of color, according to research. published on Climate earlier this year.
This is the result of the streets where people of color lived being classified as “dangerous” from the 1930s, also known as red lines, who were later denied a whole range of public and private services, including banks, health care, and parks, while targeting toxic environmental projects, such as landfills and chemical plants.
Urban heat islands, characterized by abundant heat-trapping structures such as housing projects and asphalt parking lots, and inadequate vegetation, are up to 12.6F warmer than non-redirected neighborhoods in the same city.
Heat disparity exists in 94% of the 108 cities analyzed. For example, in Birmingham, Alabama, the average temperature in marked neighborhoods, which represent 64% of the city, is currently 8F higher than historically white neighborhoods.
Vivek Shandas, professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University and lead author of the climate study, said: “It was an insidious systematic process that has had a ripple effect on the underserved communities we see today in terms of climate impact ” . “
Heat waves will continue to be worse in the south, but extreme temperatures are also spreading to unaccustomed and poorly equipped areas to mitigate the impact, according to Jen Brady, senior data analyst at Climate Central, a nonprofit group.
In Minneapolis, where the police murder of George Floyd sparked anti-racism protests across the country, the average daytime temperature during the summer has risen 2.3F since the 1970s; at night it rises 4.3F, according to Climate Central. The average number of hot days increased by 25% during the same period.
As with police brutality, racism also dictates exposure to deadly heat. In Minneapolis, the old redesigned neighborhoods, where low-income people and people of color still live, are nearly 11 ° C warmer, the third-largest temperature disparity after Denver and Portland.
Not only is it the lack of trees and parks, access to economic resources to mitigate the damaging and potentially fatal impact of extreme heat, such as air conditioning, movie tickets, and even the bus fare to reach a mall, It is also uneven, studies show.
In 2016, the net worth of a typical white family was $ 171,000, almost 10 times higher than that of a black family, according to the Brookings Institution.
Meanwhile, the underlying health and environmental risks that most commonly affect people of color, such as air pollution, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure, also increase the risk of heat-related illness.
On very hot days, students struggle to learn as a result of heat-induced physiological changes. As the temperature rises, children in schools without adequate air conditioning perform worse on tests.
In a recent national study, using data from more than 12,000 schools and 10 million middle and high school students, researchers found that a 1F warmer academic year than average reduces learning by approximately 1%.
But the effects of heat on learning are most pronounced for black and brown students and those living in poorer neighborhoods, because air conditioning, like other essential school infrastructure, is locally funded and unevenly distributed.
The negative impact of heat accumulates, according to data published in the American Economic Journal, which suggests that up to 7% of racial achievement gaps can be attributed to a combination of hotter days and warmer classrooms for African American and Latino students. .
In an op-ed piece for USA Today last year, co-author R Jisung Park, an environmental economist at UCLA’s Luskin Innovation Center, wrote: “Washington essentially contributes $ 0 to improve or maintain school facilities. This is short-sighted … adapting to climate change is a matter of racial and economic justice, especially in schools. ”