A new study covered by BBC News finds that black people in most US cities are “subject to double the level of heat stress as their white counterparts”. It says the researchers concluded differences were not explained by poverty, but by historic racism and segregation, meaning that people of color more generally “live in areas with fewer green spaces and more buildings and roads”. This, in turn, exacerbate the impacts of rising temperatures and a changing climate due to the “urban heat island effect”, the news website notes. The study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications, is also covered by the Washington Post, as is another study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which examines respiratory hospitalizations at times when heatwaves coincided with elevated pollution levels.
Heat and smog hit low-income communities and people of color hardest, scientists say
By Tik Root May 25, 2021
As the world warms due to climate change, two studies released this week show that heat exposure and related health issues are already having an inordinate impact on people of color and low-income communities.
One study, published in the journal Nature Communications, found that in all but six of the largest 175 U.S. cities it examined, people of color had higher exposures to heat than White residents. “We didn’t expect the disparities to be this systematic,” said T.C. Chakraborty, co-author of the study.
Another study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), analyzed hospitalization data in California during days when heat waves coincided with elevated pollution levels. The study found that the lower a ZIP code’s median income, the higher the chance of hospitalization for unscheduled respiratory issues on those days.
The new studies reinforce other recent research highlighting environmental inequities in minority and low-income communities. And the authors, as well as outside experts, say they hope their work will bring greater attention to heat as a climate risk.
“Heat is the number-one weather-related killer,” said Ladd Keith, assistant professor of planning and sustainable built environments at the University of Arizona, who reviewed both reports. But he said the problem often doesn’t get as much attention as hurricanes, sea level rise or other events being exacerbated by climate change. Both studies clearly highlight how the damage from climate change is worse for minority and poor neighborhoods, Ladd said. “Bolstering evidence in that area is really important,” he said.
The Nature Communications paper explored what researchers call the “heat island effect,” in which urban areas with little tree cover and a concentration of materials such as concrete and asphalt that absorb the sun’s energy experience higher temperatures. Using satellite temperature readings between 2013 and 2017 and demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the study compared the temperature of undeveloped and developed land within 175 urban areas.
In majority-White neighborhoods, the urban heat island effect was an average of 1.47 degree Celsius. For people of color and those living below the poverty line, it was nearly double that, 2.77 degrees Celsius. Blacks saw the highest urban heat exposure increase, at 3.12 degrees Celsius.
Even when incomes were equal, people of color saw greater heat exposure than Whites. “We thought it would be explained by income,” said Chakraborty, the study’s co-author and a PhD candidate at Yale University. “But it was not.”
The reason, he said, probably has to do with how American cities are organized. “Generally urban temperatures are higher in the middle of the city,” he said. That’s historically been where minority and low-income communities are located, a pattern aggravated by phenomena such as “white flight.” And whether race or income is the driver, Chakraborty said he expects exposures to become even more problematic as more people move to cities. “You’re looking at a lot more people exposed to that higher heat,” he said.
Brian Stone, director of the urban climate lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said he agrees with the general conclusions of the Nature Communications study, but he took issue with its use of satellite data, which measures land surface temperature, not air temperature. “Surface temperature isn’t shown to drive health outcomes. Air temperature does,” Stone said. “And the two often don’t align.” Stone said he understands why researchers went that route — there is a dearth of thermometers across the country, making satellite data the simplest and most cost-effective way to do a sweeping spatial analysis. But he said it means the findings may not hold on a granular level, where air temperatures are most important.
“I just would not want to see a city take the actual data set, or the approach used, to design their own potential programs,” Stone said. “That means you’re planting your trees in the wrong neighborhood.”
Extreme heat exacerbates the health impacts of ozone pollution, which can lead to higher hospitalization rates. And over the past decade, there have been about five days each year in California when heat waves and higher pollution levels collide.
The PNAS study found that lower incomes and higher unemployment rates were associated with higher hospitalization rates on days when heat and ozone events occurred. Unlike the Nature Communications study, though, the PNAS paper did not find that race influenced whether someone was more likely to be affected. “The racial disparities we see are driven by median income,” Schwarz said.
Stone said he sees potential for Schwarz’s work to help inform early-warning systems for heat and pollution exposure, and for Chakraborty’s to draw attention to the need for more equitable risk mitigation.
“We tend to not be very-well-positioned to respond to heat” Stone said. While noting that some cities, such as New York, which has mapped heat inequality, and Miami, which recently appointed a “chief heat officer,” are making progress, he said that “there’s not a single city in the United States that’s well-positioned for the heat risk we’re facing this summer.”
It’s a problem that is intensified in poorer or minority communities, where residents may lack access to air conditioning, health care and other tools to cope with heat exposure.
Experts point to potential improvements, such as more equitable deployment of cooling centers in underserved areas, or increased tree coverage in minority neighborhoods. A study last month found that 92 percent of low-income communities have less tree cover than wealthier ones.
Whatever the path forward, Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, emphasizes that effective policy must incorporate the lived experiences of those being most effected. “Everyone who’s impacted has to be at the table,” she said. “It’s only going to get hotter.”
Vicious circle of climate impacts, trauma and depression must be broken, say scientists
The climate crisis is damaging the mental health of hundreds of millions of people around the world but the huge costs are hidden, scientists have warned.
Heatwaves are increasing rates of suicide, extreme weather such as floods and wildfires are leaving victims traumatised, and loss of food security, homes and livelihoods is resulting in stress and depression. Anxiety about the future is also harming people’s mental health, especially the young, the scientists said in a report.
Mental health conditions already affect a billion people and cost trillions of dollars a year. The researchers said global heating would worsen the issue unless action was taken. They described a vicious circle where climate impacts increase mental health difficulties, leaving people even more vulnerable to further consequences.
However, they said tackling climate change could turn this into a virtuous circle. Action by individuals, communities and governments not only cuts the impacts of heating but also boosts people’s mental wellbeing by giving them healthier lives and a sense of hope and agency.
“Mental health is the unseen impact of climate change at the moment,” said Emma Lawrance of Imperial College London, who led the report. “It is a big problem that is going to affect more and more people into the future, and in particular exacerbate inequality. It is very likely to be a really big unaccounted cost.
“If you have lost your home, if you’re at risk of repeated flooding, if you’re grieving because you’ve lost a family member to a fire or your livelihood because of a drought, that is shock and trauma that translates for some into very prolonged distress and diagnoses of PTSD, anxiety, depression and increased risk of suicide.”
Even for those not yet directly affected, so-called eco-anxiety about the future has an impact, Lawrance said. “Anecdotally there are rising rates of distress, and it is going to affect a huge number of people. The grief and fear that comes with that, and especially for young people who see inaction on climate, can really exacerbate distress.” Even in the midst of the pandemic in 2020, young people in the UK reported significantly more stress about climate change than Covid-19, she said.
But Lawrance added: “Taking climate action seems to be very positive for mental health, both on an individual and community scale, but also as a society.” She said the costs to mental health and the benefits of action must become part of the mainstream work on tackling the climate crisis.
Adrian James, the president of the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “This is a landmark paper providing an essential summary for governments and healthcare services alike. [It] underlines that without urgent action the planetary crisis will impact on all aspects of health for generations to come.”
The report concludes: “The climate crisis affects the mental wellbeing of hundreds of millions of people around the world. These impacts are currently ‘hidden costs’, unaccounted for in policy and planning.”
Less than 1% of 54,000 medical research papers that mentioned climate change from 2010-20 also mentioned mental health, the researchers found. But while much more research is needed, it is already known that rates of suicide increase with rising temperatures, with one study finding a rise of 1% per 1C increase in heat above a certain threshold.
There is also evidence that air pollution and extreme weather events such as wildfires and hurricanes can contribute towards higher rates of suicide. Furthermore, people with pre-existing mental illness, particularly psychosis, dementia and substance abuse, are two to three times more likely to die during heatwaves.
How high temperatures directly affect mental health is unknown but scientists suggest changes in blood flow to the brain, perhaps exacerbated by medications, and lost sleep may be factors.
The number of cases of psychological trauma arising from a disaster can exceed physical injury cases by 40 to one, the report said, noting that after recent Australian bushfires the government spent A$76m (£42m) providing mental health support.
Climate impacts can also indirectly damage mental health by harming loved ones, causing the loss of homes or jobs, reducing access to water, food or healthcare, or displacing people from their communities. Poorer mental health has been reported by people affected by flooding in the UK and Thailand, by displacement including in Puerto Rico and Florida after Hurricane Maria, and from rural areas into towns after droughts in Australia and Sudan.
However, actions that cut global heating can also benefit mental health, such as making walking and cycling easier, providing nature-rich places that people can visit, and making homes warmer and less damp through energy efficiency measures.
Climate action is likely to improve the mental wellbeing of everyone, Lawrance said. “For example, in a community experiencing higher temperatures, there are reports of worse emotional wellbeing across the board. Climate actions that create greener, cleaner cities and reduce inequalities can potentially improve the mental health of all citizens.”
It’s wrong to blame ‘overpopulation’ for climate change (WaPo) by Sarah Kaplan May 25, 2021
“Why is the impact of population growth infrequently mentioned? A couple producing more than two children will impact carbon emissions to a greater degree than any other activity. That impact cannot be offset by any practicable lifestyle change; switching to vegetarianism doesn’t come close to balance the scales.”
— James, Lebanon, Pa.
When the Census Bureau released data recently showing that the United States population is growing at its slowest rate in almost a century, an old question reappeared in environmental reporters’ inboxes: Do we need a smaller population to save our warming planet?
The answer is: Not necessarily. Climate change isn’t caused by population growth. It’s caused by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.
“But,” you might respond, “doesn’t having more people on the planet lead to more fossil fuel consumption, which leads to more emissions?”Advertisement
A small minority of wealthy people produce the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions — their consumption habits have a much greater impact than overall population numbers. It’s true that the planet can’t support unlimited population growth, Ramaswami said. But if people can figure out how to moderate our consumption and meet our needs without fossil fuels, experts say, it is possible for all of us to live sustainably and well —even if there are more of us.
To measure humanity’s collective mark on the planet, environmental scientists like Ramaswami use the “IPAT” equation: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. In this formula, affluence is defined as the gross domestic product per capita, and technology is a measure of the amount of resources required to produce a unit of GDP.Advertisement
Since the start of the millennium, U.N. reports show, global resource use has been primarily driven by increases in affluence, not the population. This is especially true in high- to upper-middle-income nations, which account for 78 percent of material consumption, despite having slower population growth rates than the rest of the world.
Meanwhile in low-income countries, whose share of the global population has almost doubled, demand for resources has stayed constant at just about 3 percent of the global total.
The “technology” portion of the IPAT formula is also moving in the wrong direction, Ramaswami said. Since 2000, the world has used more resources to make less stuff, largely because globalization has moved production to places where energy systems and machinery are less efficient.
Another U.N. study has found that inequality within and between countries makes them less effective at tackling climate change. A lack of social cohesion and the concentration of power in the hands of wealthy people — who are more insulated from climate change’s worst impacts — makes nations less likely to take the kinds of collective actions needed, analysts found. In turn, the effects of warming disproportionately harm low-income communities, which makes inequality even worse.Advertisement
These data suggest that stabilizing the climate depends on addressing the affluence and technology aspects of the IPAT equation, Ramaswami said. “Fixating on population decrease doesn’t make much of a difference.”
Treating people as the problem isn’t just misguided — it’s dangerous. When concern about population becomes central to environmental policy, said researcher Betsy Hartman, “racism and xenophobia are always waiting in the wings.”
The former director of the population and development program at Hampshire College and author of “Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: the Global Politics of Population Control,” Hartman can cite countless examples of this link. Many founders of America’s conservation movement were fervent eugenicists. Native American tribes were forced from their lands so the United States government could establish national parks. More recently, the alleged perpetrators of mass shootings at mosques in New Zealand and a Walmart in El Paso cited “eco-fascist” concerns about overpopulation and environmental degradation.Advertisement
“In this ideology of ‘too many people’ it’s always certain people who are ‘too many,’ ” Hartman said. “It just shifts the discourse away from the real problem of who has power and how the economy is organized.”
James, who posed the question at the beginning of this piece, is correct when he wrote that lifestyle changes can’t mitigate a person’s entire environmental impact. We all need to eat. We all need homes that are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. We all live in a world that generates most of its electricity, food and consumer goods with fossil fuels. There is no opting out of those systems.
But systems can change.
“One of the biggest opportunities is what we call ‘decoupling,’ ” Ramaswami said. “You can still grow your population and GDP if you decouple your basic provisioning systems from resource use and greenhouse gas emissions.”Advertisement
That task is difficult, but not impossible. According to the International Energy Administration, it is now cheaper to build new solar power facilities than coal or gas power plants. Ramaswami’s research on sustainable cities has found that urban areas could halve their resource and material use simply through better design — more density, fewer cars, accessible green space. Scientists are working on ways to reduce agriculture emissions and even turn farmland into a carbon sink. These technological changes can limit humanity’s impact without hurting the affluence or population parts of the equation.
People should also recognize that the IPAT equation is just one way of looking at the issue, said Indiana University’s Shahzeen Attari, an expert in resource use and environmental psychology. It doesn’t account for metrics like happiness, or public health or the strength of civil society — measures of well-being that can’t be quantified in terms of dollars spent or resources used.
To achieve a sustainable society, Attari said, we should also “decouple” consumption from our ideas about progress and growth. Instead of focusing solely on GDP, nations could seek to improve a metric known as the Human Development Index, which also considers things like life expectancy and access to schooling. They could even take it one step further and adopt the “planetary pressures-adjusted” HDI, which rewards countries that promote human development without increasing greenhouse gas emissions and resource use.
The effort to build a safe, healthy and equitable world can’t be boiled down to a numbers game. But if you do want to focus on a number, it shouldn’t be in the number of people on the planet. It should be 419 parts per million — the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. In the end, that’s the number that most needs to come down.366 Comments
By Sarah Kaplan is a climate reporter covering humanity’s response to a warming world. She previously reported on Earth science and the universe.