Racial minorities in the United States will bear a disproportionate burden of the negative health and environmental impacts from a warming planet, the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday, including more deaths from extreme heat and property loss from flooding in the wake of sea-level rise.
The world has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution began, and is on track to warm by more than 1.5 degrees by the early 2030s.
Joe Goffman, acting head of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said the comprehensive review was a “first of its kind.” It amounts to a federal acknowledgment of the broad and disproportionate effect that global warming is having on some of America’s most socially vulnerable groups. Just this week, the Department of Health and Human Services established the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, the first federal program aimed at specifically examining how the burning of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas emissions affect human health.
The impact of Hurricane Ida, whose remnants Wednesday wreaked havoc in New Jersey and New York City, is still being calculated. But Goffman said many Black and low-income residents in Louisiana and Mississippi are faced with the challenge of mustering the resources to replace living rooms drowned in floodwaters and rooftops ripped apart by powerful winds.
“But one of the underlying lessons of this report is that so many communities that are heavily Black and African American find themselves in the way of some of the worst impacts of climate change,” he said, “as was the case with Katrina and, we may find, turns out to be the case with Ida.”
Cristiane Rosales Fajardo, a community organizer in New Orleans who said she took in more than three dozen undocumented residents displaced by Ida, said people of color need more support after storms in part because they helped bring the city back from the brink after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“We need to think about, how do we support an entire city when a hurricane comes?” she said. “We need to think about how to help our entire city, because guess what? Our blood and our sweat is going to be what it takes to rebuild the city, just like we rebuilt it” after Katrina.
Other climate-driven disasters, from heat waves to flooding, are already affecting vulnerable Americans. Late last month, for example, the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration confirmed that a worker on a construction site collapsed June 28, the hottest day on record in the state, and died less than two weeks later. It attributed the death at Robinson Construction to “heat stress.”
A separate report released Thursday by the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center said the United States now suffers more than 8,500 excess deaths in a typical year due to extreme heat driven by recent warming. That will increase to nearly 60,000 by 2050, it added, “with populations in Arizona, Southern California and southwest Texas hit hardest.”
Extreme heat has put the United States on track to lose an average of $100 billion a year from lost productivity, the analysis found, with the figure rising to $200 billion by 2030.
Dominique Browning, co-founder of the green group Moms Clean Air Force, said the EPA’s report “couldn’t be more perfectly timed,” following Ida’s destructive wake. “We are in such an emergency.”
But she added that it remains to be seen whether the Biden administration and Congress will put in place powerful enough legislation and regulation to cut pollution and slow-rising temperatures. The group is pressing the EPA, for instance, to set tougher standards for ozone and soot, two pollutants at higher levels in neighborhoods with more racial minorities.
Black people are 40 percent more likely than other groups to currently live in places where extreme temperatures driven by climate change will result in higher mortality rates, the analysis found. In addition, African Americans are 34 percent more likely to live in areas where childhood asthma diagnoses are likely to be exacerbated by climate change.
EPA staffers launched the study last summer under President Donald Trump, with an eye toward publishing it in an academic journal. But “the Biden-Harris administration took ownership of this report and elevated it,” Goffman said, because of its focus on climate and environmental justice.
President Biden issued an executive order a week after taking office aimed at addressing the historic pollution burdens faced by communities of color that were targeted for the construction of railroad depots, coal-fired power plants, freeways and factories that produce toxic chemicals. But he has yet to deliver on some of his most sweeping promises to address historic inequities, as Congress has yet to enact his legislative proposals that would pour billions of dollars into these areas.
Low-income residents with no high school diploma — including White people, who like the other groups fall under the environmental justice umbrella of communities historically zoned for pollution — will also experience more flooding and lost work hours from flooding, the analysis said.
The study “drew on a growing body of literature,” the authors wrote, such as the fourth National Climate Assessment, which “focuses on the disproportionate and unequal risks that climate change is projected to have on communities that are least able to anticipate, cope with, and recover from adverse impacts.”
The analysis covers only the Lower 48 states, excluding Alaska and Hawaii. As a result, the authors said, it does not capture the full effect on some groups, including Alaska Natives and Asian Americans.
The new study looked at a range of adverse effects based on average global temperatures rising between 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) and 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit).
But global temperature increases are not felt evenly. A 2 degrees Celsius increase worldwide could cause an average annual temperature spike of 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in large swaths of the United States, scientists said, including the Great Plains, Midwest, Northeast and Southwest.
A worldwide rise of 4 degrees Celsius would cause an average annual spike of up to 6 degrees Celsius, or nearly 11 degrees Fahrenheit, in those areas.
Black people 65 and older would probably be profoundly affected by poor air quality. They are 41 percent to 60 percent more likely to die as a result of fine-particle pollution, or soot, depending on how high temperatures rise.
In 49 cities analyzed for the study, from Seattle to Miami, Black people are 41 percent to 59 percent more likely to die as a result of poor air quality.
Black children 17 and younger would also suffer disproportionately, the study found. They are 34 percent to 40 percent more likely to be diagnosed with asthma depending on the range of temperature increases based on where they live.
Native Americans and Latinos are more likely to be affected by extreme temperatures where they work. Latinos would be 43 percent more likely than others to lose work hours and pay because it’s too hot, while American Indians and Alaskan Natives are 37 percent more likely to lose hours.
Holly Bailey in New Orleans contributed to this report.