Climate gap

The climate gap is driven primarily by fossil-fuel use and associated carbon emissions, climate change poses an existential threat to planetary life.

Climate change has transformed physical and social environments through rising sea levels, drought, heat waves, more intense hurricanes and flooding, and disruptions to energy and food production.

There are disparate effects on marginalized populations. 

Formerly colonized countries that are least responsible for greenhouse-gas emissions are the most threatened by the multiple risks of global warming and lack the resources to resist the forces of climate change and survive.

Within the United States, climate change and fossil fuel–generated air pollution disproportionately harm people of color and low-income communities.

The inequitable effects on racially marginalized groups have been described as the “climate gap”.

Communities that are most vulnerable to rapidly changing climate conditions and have the fewest resources to prepare for and recover from extreme weather events and other climate-related hazards are communities of color, Indigenous peoples, and low-income communities.

Vulnerability to climate change is determined according to the ability of communities and households to anticipate, avoid, mitigate, and recover from the direct and indirect effects of climate change, including extreme weather events, geophysical shifts, and infectious diseases. 

Climate change will amplify existing health, social, and economic inequalities while creating new ones.

Greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change are driven in part by systemic inequalities, including large disparities in wealth and political power, as well as racial and ethnic segregation.

Societies with social and economic inequities may be more likely to pollute or otherwise degrade their environments.

The economic benefits that result from polluting activities are accrued more by wealthy persons, both as producers and consumers than by low-income persons. 

Wealthy persons avoid the harmful effects of pollution by, for example, moving away from industrial areas or wielding political influence to keep polluting activities away from their neighborhoods. 

This physical separation between privileged and disadvantaged communities can solidify and amplify patterns of racial residential segregation that have been associated with higher levels of traffic-related air pollution that also disproportionately affect communities of color.

There is inequitable distribution of pollution sources, including major roadways, rail lines, ports, and industrial facilities, that have led to disproportionate air pollution exposures borne by communities of color and low-income communities.Redlining by grading and mapping neighborhoods in cities across the United States according to perceptions of risk in real-estate investment: These risk criteria were often racist, in which neighborhoods composed of largely low-income, immigrant, or Black residents were deemed to be hazardous and mapped in red whereas wealthier communities with more White residents were considered to be desirable.

These maps reflected racism perpetuated by government and private actors within urban real-estate markets beginning early in the 20th century.

Red lining is associated with several adverse health outcomes, including: asthma, low birthweight, and cancer. 

Red lined communities have been subjected to discriminatory policies, including eminent domain, industrial zoning, and discriminatory and predatory lending. 

This has lead to a disproportionall exposure to environmental hazards and poor housing quality with psychosocial stress, ambient air, pollution, and indoor allergensAll known risk factors for asthma and worse, asthma morbidity.

Discriminatory lending and systematic public disinvestment in formerly redlined neighborhoods, have contributed to the destruction of many Black communities through their bifurcation by highway construction and urban renewal programs.

Many of these neighborhoods have worse air quality, minimal green space, and higher risks of heat-island effects, and elevated rates of cardiovascular disease, hospitalizations for asthma, poor birth outcomes,19 and other diseases increasing vulnerability to the adverse health effects associated with climate change.

Many components of the fossil-fuel supply chain and infrastructure in the United States are disproportionately located in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods: include pipelines and refineries, ports, and upstream oil- and gas-extraction sites.

Redlined neighborhoods have nearly twice the density of oil and gas wells than otherwise similar neighborhoods that were not redlined.

Drilling and operating oil and gas wells worsen air pollution25 and are associated with increased risks of health problems, such as respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, depression, and poor birth outcomes among residents living nearby.

In areas where communities of color and Indigenous groups have resisted construction of hazardous fossil-fuel infrastructure, the fossil-fuel industry has provided funding to support suppression of protesters.

The frequency and extent of flooding are increasing because of sea-level rise, more frequent storms, and heavy precipitation events, which have implications for health equity, as they disproportionately affect people of color and low-income people.

People of color and low-income people are  more likely to live in flood-prone zones and have a greater risk of injury or death, as well as mental health conditions of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, that are associated with such disasters.

People living in these communities are less likely to have access to care for evacuation, have adequate home insurance, or be able to return and rebuild afterward.

Communities of color and low-income populations are more likely to be exposed to unsafe drinking-water quality and degraded sanitation infrastructure.

Extreme storms and sea-level rise also threaten chemical and other manufacturing plants, power plants, hazardous-waste treatment facilities, landfills, and legacy clean-up sites that store, use, or emit hazardous materials, leading to natural–technological disasters in communities living nearby.

Across the United States, low-income people and people of color are more likely to live near hazardous-waste and industrial facilities.

Thus, during extreme storms, coastal flooding of contaminated and hazardous sites has disproportionately affected socially disadvantaged populations.

High temperatures are associated with higher risks of illness: cardiovascular, mental health, and pregnancy-related outcomes and death among adults of color than among their White counterparts.

The prevalence and severity of preterm birth is likely to worsen with increasing temperatures and exacerbate racial disparities in preterm birth rates.

The greater vulnerability of communities of color and low-income communities to heat is explained by inequalities in neighborhood-level exposures to extreme temperatures, workplace conditions, housing quality, access to air conditioning, prevalence of underlying chronic health conditions, and other effects of structural racism and socioeconomic marginalization.

This  urban heat-island effect, is due to the lack of tree canopy and prevalence of impervious surfaces, such as roads and sidewalks, that decrease the dissipation of heat and increase warming. 

A national analysis has shown higher rates of land-cover patterns associated with greater heat-related risks in neighborhoods housing Black, Asian, and Hispanic persons than in predominantly White neighborhoods.

Lack of access to air conditioning is common in communities of color and low-income communities, particularly among older adults and disabled persons residing in urban areas, which predisposes them to heat-related health complications and death. 

A study of Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Pittsburgh showed that Black persons had a 5.3% higher heat-related mortality than White persons.

Hispanic workers are disproportionately represented in hazardous outdoor occupations, including agriculture, landscaping, and construction, in which the risks of heat-related health complications and death are highest.

Wildfires are increasingly fueled by climate change, and exposures to wildfire smoke pose considerable health risks to affected populations. 

Incomplete combustion during wildfires generates not only fine particulate matter (particles with an aerodynamic diameter of ≤2.5 μm [PM2.5]) but also nitrogen dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, and trace metals. 

These particles can travel long distances, potentially harming communities hundreds of kilometers away from the wildfire.

Although environmental regulations have led to a decrease in PM2.5 levels in the United States, wildfire-related PM2.5 levels have increased, particularly in the western states.

Communities of color face a high risk of wildfire hazards and, along with low-income populations, may have elevated exposures and risks of adverse health effects, including cardiovascular and respiratory events, associated with wildfire events and smoke: due to higher rates of outdoor work, as in agricultural and construction sectors, and occupancy in poor-quality housing where wildfire-related air pollutants can penetrate indoor environments.

Communities of color have limited ability to evacuate, a high prevalence of existing respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, and barriers to health care access.

People of color are also at higher risk for wildfire-related cardiovascular and respiratory events than White persons.

The health threats caused by climate change can be addressed by systemic transformations of our energy, food-production, economic, legal, and health care systems.

Ultimately, effective policies to address the climate gap must prioritize the needs and elevate the leadership of environmental justice communities that continue to endure the disproportionate health burdens of climate change and our extractive fossil-fuel economy.

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