The recent heat wave in North America is yet another example that despite being a global problem, climate change will not affect everyone equally and could exacerbate existing social and economic injustices.
Climate change is already wreaking havoc all over the world, between the recent floods in northern Europe and China or the heat wave and fires in North America. George Orwell already said that if all animals are equal, some are more equal than others, and this seems to be the case when it comes to who will suffer the most from climate change.
Worldwide, more than 166 thousand people died in heat waves between 1998 and 2017, according to the World Health Organization. This makes heat one of the biggest causes of death within weather-related disasters. However, its impact remains often underestimated, as death certificates generally record the cause of death without mentioning the association with extreme heat.
The most fatal heat waves often occur in cities with a temperate climate that are unexpectedly exposed to extreme temperatures, as happened in Paris in 2003, when 14,000 people died. The recent heat wave off the US west coast has also married 116 deaths in the state of Oregon alone.
To help reduce the risk of heat stroke, urban planners, climatologists and meteorologists are working to identify the most vulnerable areas. Research shows that ethnic minorities and poor communities will be disproportionately affected by heat waves, especially in the United States.
This difference is explained by the redlining, a historic practice in the US and Canada that barred purchases from blacks in more developed communities and that segregated minorities into poorer urban areas. The term was created by the sociologist John McKnight in the 1960s as the government drew a red line on the map around neighborhoods where they would not invest due to demographic data.
But the legacy of redlining it goes beyond discrimination in access to housing. The effects of this policy on crime were already known, due to the concentration of black communities in poorer areas and also with a higher probability of lead poisoning, which is associated with cognitive delays and delinquency.
Young Freddie Gray, whose death at the hands of police in 2015 sparked protests and riots in Baltimore, is a media example of lead poisoning associated with redlining. The effects of these racist policies are still felt today, as many of the big US cities remain extremely segregated, and there are correlations between the poorest communities and those with the lowest life expectancy and the areas where the most blacks live.
Although heat waves also affect rural areas, cities generally suffer the most. This happens because of the effect of urban heat island, as the materials from which streets and buildings are made cause a greater temperature rise than more leafy areas.
Many of the communities where minorities live are warmer because they are in areas with a lot of asphalt, while the white population generally benefits from the proximity of green areas and parks. “It’s very shocking. We have to ask ourselves why these patterns are so consistent and universal“, reveals the scientist angel hsu, from the University of North Carolina, to Nature.
The climate scientist runs a group that analyzes data for climate solutions and the racism that determines who suffers most from the heat became clear. In one of the largest studies to date that looked at differences in heat exposure in the US, Angel Hsu’s team combined satellite measurements of urban temperatures with demographic data from the Census in 175 US cities.
Big differences were expected, but Hsu was shocked. In 97% of cities, the minorities were exposed to temperatures one degree higher, on average, than white communities. “We have widespread and systemic evidence of environmental racism related to exposure to urban heat. I didn’t think it was basically universal,” he says.
Another 2018 study showed that temperatures in the separate areas on the redlining maps are on average 2.6 degrees higher in 108 urban areas in the United States, as a result of decisions like building highways and industrial zones in ethnic minority communities.
Hispanic communities in the US are also exposed to more air pollution than that they produce, unlike the white population, which breathes better quality air despite being more polluting, according to a 2019 study.
A 2017 investigation also found that black communities living in the southern coastal areas of the US are at a disproportionate risk of suffering from cancer. sea level rise.
Racial inequalities also translate into fewer resources to deal with climate change. More than 30% of New Orleans’ blacks did not have a car to evacuate when Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, according to a 2008 study. to return to the city.
According to the environmental sociologist Taylor Dorceta, the world of climate activism has historically been dominated by white men, cited by Washington Post. A 2014 study by the Green Diversity Initiative showed that only 12% of members of environmental foundations and non-governmental organizations belonged to minorities.
a global problem
But given the planetary scale of climate change, this isn’t just a problem in the United States. In Qatar, many immigrants working in the construction industry have died because of cardiovascular failures caused by heat stroke. About 6500 immigrants working in preparation for the 2022 World Cup in the country have already died.
In Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, a survey of 505 residents conducted during the warm season in 2016 found that people with lower incomes were more likely to suffer heat stress than those living on higher incomes.
In Madagascar, more than a million people are suffering from what is considered to be the first food shortage in modern history caused by climate change. In response to the famine, a United Nations executive said that a “area of the world that has contributed nothing to climate change” is now “paying a high price”.
Many developing countries are suffering greatly from the consequences of climate change, even though they are not the main polluters. A study this year found that the ten countries most likely to suffer the impacts are: Singapore, Rwanda, China, India, the Solomon Islands, Bhutan, Boston, Georgia, South Korea and Thailand.
The climate crisis is also exacerbating the inequality between men and women. According to United Nations data cited by the BBC, 80% of people who had to move because of the weather were women.
There are already some strategies to combat social inequalities that the climate crisis is exposing. Many cities in the US are now taking into account the thermal equality in urban planning by painting roofs white or planting more trees in areas that had historically been discriminated against. There are also metropolises providing financial support to residents to help pay energy bills in the summer.
One approach is to keep parks open for longer hours during heat waves so that people who live in warmer houses can go somewhere cooler. In India, in Ahmedabad, started sending public alerts when temperature forecasts surpassed 41 degrees after a heat wave in 2010. One study found that the strategy saved an average of 1,190 lives a year.
In Paris, there is a program to turn public school playgrounds into places of refreshment, especially in the suburbs, where more racial minorities live.
Recent extreme phenomena, such as floods in China and Northern Europe and fires in Italy or the United States, have bare the inequalities of climate change victims on a global scale. It remains to be seen whether world leaders will be able to unite to reverse this trend.