- Climate change is a serious health threat for everyone but especially for communities that are already vulnerable.
- Geographic proximity to polluting facilities, for example, is a way in which disadvantaged communities of color are made vulnerable to climate change.
- Past policies can have a domino public health effect from generation to generation.
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic and the overlapping cultural reckoning over racial injustice have shed light on the stark socioeconomic and public health disparities experienced by people of color domestically and worldwide.
Today, those same needed conversations are happening around how we approach another global crisis and its associated public health ramifications — climate change.
While research and the work of activists have long highlighted just how grave the impacts of our planet's worsening climate crisis are on communities of color worldwide, experts say it's a problem that isn't being discussed enough.
Rising temperatures and comorbidities
Climate change is a serious health threat for people from all walks of life, but it is a major concern for communities already vulnerable due to societal inequities.
A person's health can be affected by their home's geographic location, whether they have access to medical care or other key resources, and how much money they make.
Climate change is an overarching threat that touches on all of these things — those who are disadvantaged are at greater risk of suffering most from its negative effects. This is acutely true for people of color.
If you live near a factory that pollutes the air, it puts you and your children at increased health risks. Living in an area with few hospitals or physicians means less access to preventive care, putting people at increased risk for various health conditions. And when disaster strikes — such as when a hurricane or massive snowstorm cuts power — not having enough resources to get to a safe area can imperil your health.
There's been a “real lack of federal support for any research into climate change and its effects on health, broadly defined. I hope it will change with this new [presidential] administration, and they won't have any issue talking about health inequalities and the exacerbation of health inequalities because of climate change,” said Sabrina McCormick, PhD, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
McCormick told Healthline that it has long been known just how damaging climate change can be on those already experiencing health inequities in the United States and beyond.
Exposure to air pollutants released by greenhouse gases and geographic proximity to polluting facilities, for example, are ways in which disadvantaged communities of color are made especially vulnerable to climate change.
“We know that warming temperatures exacerbate cardiovascular risks and other kinds of health issues that are caused by and made worse by climate change,” McCormick said.
When asked if enough is being done to address these problems, McCormick quickly responded “no.”
“We are not doing anywhere near enough to identify what those inequalities are, address them, and even more importantly, how to prevent them,” she said.
McCormick said that when you live with multiple comorbidities, or preexisting illnesses at once, you are already more susceptible to new emergent health threats brought about by something like climate change.
A 2017 review in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine looked at the impact several common comorbid conditions — obesity, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and hypertension — had on racial and ethnic disparities in risk of death.
They found that American Indians and Black Americans had significantly elevated rates of co-occurrence and elevated mortality disparities than their white counterparts.
There are multiple reasons that certain demographic groups are more likely to have higher comorbidities, including unequal access to healthcare and prejudice from the medical community.
Recent studies have also found that facing racism in society, day in and day out, can take a measurable toll on health.
McCormick said the elevated presence of these chronic conditions in Black and brown communities makes them susceptible to the onslaught of new health challenges from climate change.
How the environment can take a toll on health
Changes in climate can have downstream effects on health that may not seem clear at first.
For instance, heat is a big risk for many communities.
Sharp increases in heat can exacerbate diabetes or heart disease conditions, which run high in marginalized communities.
“Heat is a big example that we see across American communities of color and communities of lower socioeconomic status. They tend to be living in hotter areas, so if you have an extreme heat wave, not only is it already hotter to begin with but there isn't the infrastructure necessary to cool those communities,” McCormick said.
She cited lack of access to air-conditioning and needed green spaces in these communities, especially those that might be in more urban, built-up areas without access to public parks.
This is a crucial concern in so-called “heat islands,” which refers to urban areas that experience higher temperatures than other areas because their concrete, building, and road-heavy environs trap and re-emit the sun's heat, unlike more open, grassy, rural areas.
Why is this an issue of another racial disparity?
A 2013 study found that ethnic minorities, overall, were more likely to live in these urban heat islands than white people. Zeroing in further, Black people were 52 percent more likely to live in these areas than their white peers.
For many marginalized communities, it's often impossible to avoid living in these areas.
Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, PhD, an associate professor in the department of behavioral and social sciences and the department of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health, said the practice “redlining” — a racist segregationist practice begun in the 1930s that essentially kept Black Americans in poorer, resource-deficient neighborhoods — might be one reason why these communities have such limited access to green areas, to begin with.
She told Healthline that having access to these types of areas could counter the heat island effect and make it easier to spend time outdoors and purify the air, thus attenuating exposure to air pollution.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says these heat island areas pose major climate change-fueled health risks to their residents. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are more likely with the increase of heat waves in these areas. Older adults and young children at high risk for death from extreme heat is a serious concern.
Heat can also have an impact on generations just being born. A 2015 study in the journal Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology found that infant mortality rates during California heat waves from 1999 to 2011 were highest for Black babies.
The stains of racial inequities are old and can seem indelibly dyed in the fabric of our society.
Oftentimes past policies, like redlining, can have a domino public health effect down through generation to generation. And these effects can be exacerbated by climate change.
Grigsby-Toussaint said that marginalized communities have been granted fewer protections from environmental pollutants than their white, wealthier counterparts.
She cited one 2017 report from the NAACP that revealed Black Americans are more likely to live within a half-mile of a natural gas facility.
She said this is especially concerning since a 2020 study showed that county-level mortality rates from COVID-19 were tied with higher exposure rates to harmful air pollution.
The study found that people were exposed to PM2.5, a measure of particulate matter, or particle pollution inhalation. Long-term exposure to PM2.5 increases exposure and risk to a number of health problems, especially respiratory illnesses.
The reality is that the poorest communities of color are often the most at-risk victims to the public health impact of climate change.
And these are not new problems.
A report from 1987 found that a person's race in the United States was the key to figuring out just where you might find exposure to unhealthy, often deadly toxic waste.
“This concern has been focused upon the adverse environmental and health effects of toxic chemicals and other hazardous substances emanating from operating hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facilities as well as thousands of abandoned waste sites,” the paper reads.
“Efforts to address this issue, however, have largely ignored the specific concerns of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. Unfortunately, racial and ethnic Americans are far more likely to be unknowing victims of exposure to such substances,” the paper states.
Flash forward more than three decades and not much has changed.
A 2020 report finds that “The areas near Superfund sites are disproportionately populated by communities of color and low-income communities.”
These superfund sites, which are contaminated by extremely hazardous chemicals, are at great risk of flooding due to climate change-induced sea-level rise.
An interconnected society
It isn't hard to see the parallels between COVID-19 and climate change. Both crises are global in nature, and both disproportionately affect the most vulnerable communities of color. In the United States alone, COVID-19 hit Black communities the hardest.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the impact of the ‘climate gap' — the disproportionate impact of climate change on minoritized and poor communities,” Grigsby-Toussaint said.
Grigsby-Toussaint added that shelter-in-place orders made to protect against the pandemic's spread were hard for communities of color and overlap with the same challenges these communities face in combatting climate change.
“With limited opportunity for economic growth, residents of poor and minoritized neighborhoods are more likely to have to use public transportation to travel to wealthier neighborhoods for work — precluding adherence to social distancing guidelines,” she explained.
McCormick said we “don't have a choice” when it comes to making radical changes to bridge these inequities in the face of both the pandemic and climate change.
“The most vulnerable are the ones who see the effects [of climate change] first, it shows what will happen to the rest of us,” she said. “We must mobilize to protect them and protect everybody else.”
McCormick said we have the capacity to make the necessary change, but the big challenge is making it happen fast enough.
When it comes to the speed of change, she said we just have to look at the pandemic.
“This COVID experience even surprised me as a social scientist just how quickly and how radically it has changed so many of us. So many of us have changed our very basic daily lives to address the risk of COVID-19. What that says to me is we can do the same for climate change if we put our minds to it,” McCormick added.
Given that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness transmitted through the air, she said, hopefully, it has made us more cognizant of our surrounding environments.
“I think we've also seen the beautiful instances of the reemergence of nature and wildlife when we've left it alone to heal itself,” she added. “We realized we don't need all the things that we thought we needed, but we do need other things like human connections and relationships, maybe more than fossil fuel-consuming activities.”
In 2016, Grigsby-Toussaint co-authored a paper called “Ecosystem Services Connect Environmental Change to Human Health Outcomes.”
She said that she and her co-authors “argued for an interdisciplinary ecosystem services approach to improve human health and well-being.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that it is even more imperative that we take this approach, with an added focus on equity,” she said.
For her part, McCormick said that the climate crisis offers a moment for all members of society to realize how interconnected we are and how that is the key to fighting the health challenges brought about by a warming Earth.
” I think it’s important for everyone to understand when we see marginalized and disenfranchised communities being hurt, it hurts everyone,” she said.