Disadvantaged Communities Face the Biggest Adverse Impacts From Climate Change

Although climate change affects the entire global population, historically marginalized and under-resourced communities will be disproportionately affected.

Climate change will affect the entire global population, but it will disproportionately affect people of color, low-income communities, immigrants and other high-need groups, according to a brief from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF).

The groups, which are historically marginalized and under-resources, will have the least resources to prepare for a climate disaster and then recover from it. “As climate-related events become more common, the impacts on health and health care will increase in both frequency and intensity,” the authors wrote.

Among the health threats related to climate change that the brief highlighted were:

  • Heat-related illnesses and deaths as a result of longer, more frequent and more intense heat waves.
  • Direct loss of life and negative health impacts results from increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as major storms. In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey and Maria, populations were left to deal with flooding and damage that can spread waterborne diseases, limited access to basic needs and disrupted access to healthcare and prescription medications. And these affected populations can feel the effects for years later.
  • Worse air quality that leads to decreased lung function, increased cardiovascular- and respiratory-related hospital visits and increased premature deaths. Increased wildfires contribute to incidences of respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and a longer, more intense pollen season may negatively impact respiratory health.

People of color will face increased risks due to climate change compared with White individuals. Black people are more likely “to live in areas with the highest projected increases in extreme temperature-related deaths and the highest projected increases in childhood asthma diagnoses, respectively.” This is due to historical policies, such as redlining.

Hispanic people are more likely to live in the hottest parts of cities, yet nearly one-third of them do not have air conditioning, leaving them susceptible to the adverse outcomes of health exposure. Half of agricultural workers and 28% of construction workers in the United States are Hispanic. These occupations are commonly associated with heat-related illnesses.

American Indian and Alaska Native people have been relegated to land that is more exposed to climate change risks due to historic land dispossession. In addition, Tribal lands are being eaten away by coastal erosion from sea levels rising.

“Low-income communities are likely to be disproportionately affected by climate change,” according to the brief. “People with low socioeconomic status are more likely to live in fragile housing, be exposed to environmental hazards, and have more limited ability to prepare for or recover from extreme climate events.”

Finally, older adults are more sensitive to the effects of climate change. In addition to lower concentrations of air pollution and smaller temperature changes adversely affecting this group, they are more likely to live alone or be socially isolated, which puts them at greater risk when there is extreme weather.

This brief from KFF comes weeks after the Biden administration launched a new public information series called Climate and Health Outlook, which is a resource to help people, health professional and communities protect individual and community health impacted by climate events.

The first installment takes on extreme heat. Using season weather and climate outlooks from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the resource will present estimates of which counties are expected to experience extremely hot days and the vulnerable populations that may be impacted in those counties. In addition, it will include a set of actionable resources.

“We’ve seen what exposure to extreme heat can do,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, said in a statement. “It can lead to illness and death and makes it much harder to do a day’s work outdoors. Many people in the United States have jobs that require them to work outside to feed their families regardless of the weather. Our new Climate and Health Outlook protects people and their health by giving advance notice to the communities that will be most impacted in the coming months.”