During the final weeks of June and early part of July much of the East Coast sweltered through a heat wave. For many, the excessive heat was just uncomfortable and sent them scrambling for the respite of a pool or air-conditioned home. But for the elderly, those with medical conditions like diabetes, and low-income individuals who can’t afford air-conditioning or the electricity to power it, heat waves can be extremely dangerous. In one dramatic example, a 2006 heat wave in California led to the death of 138 individuals by official counts—more than the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes combined. Many were elderly and living on fixed incomes. Outdoor workers such as farm workers, landscapers, and laborers are also particularly vulnerable to heat-related illness due to their greater exposure, as illustrated by the poignant example of Maria Isabel Jimenez, a pregnant 17-year-old who died while toiling in a vineyard. And to point out the obvious, these occupations are generally low-wage jobs predominantly filled by immigrants, minorities, and individuals with limited education who have few alternatives.

Heat waves are nothing new, but they are increasing in intensity as a result of climate change. The average annual temperature in the US has increased by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 50 years and is projected to rise further. The frequency of high heat days is projected to increase dramatically—current 1-in-20 year highs will likely become annual or biannual occurrences in much of the US. Similarly, parts of the South that currently experience an average of 60 days with temperatures over 90 degrees will experience 150 days or more, and other parts of the country will see similar increases.

Why are we spending so much time talking about heat waves? Because they illustrate a broader point: global warming is bringing the connection between environmental quality and the predicament of disadvantaged populations into ever-sharper relief. The fact that disadvantaged populations suffer more from environmental issues like air pollution, industrial contamination, or lack of access to parks and open space is well-documented, and internationally, there is increasing dialogue about the differential vulnerability of countries to climate change as a result of their relative wealth. But unlike many other issues in the US—for example, education and health—where public discourse is almost always framed around gaps and disparities, we don’t necessarily see nonprofits, funders, or elected officials paying much attention to preparing disadvantaged communities to adapt to a changing climate. As an example, climate change philanthropy has increased dramatically in the last decade, yet our quick analysis of Foundation Center data on U.S.-focused climate change grants between 2008-2010 found that of more than $1 billion dollars spent on climate change, less than $2 million was specifically targeted to help disadvantaged populations adapt to climate change (and only about $40 million was specifically directed to adaptation overall).

We are kicking off a research project to explore the effects of climate change on disadvantaged populations in the United States. This line of inquiry raises several difficult questions, among them: Will a failure to account for climate change undermine promising efforts to revitalize neighborhoods, improve community health, or grow inclusive local economies? While not abandoning efforts to curb carbon emissions and limit climate change, is it time to shift some climate funding toward helping the most vulnerable prepare for already unavoidable consequences of climate change? How will we fund adaptation in an era of declining government budgets and deferred infrastructure investments, and what should the social sector be doing to help? We plan to share what we’re learning and invite your feedback to help identify critical considerations we might otherwise miss. We will also pose some of the vexing questions we encounter so that we can benefit from your collective wisdom and diverse experience. In that spirit:

  • Do you believe that climate adaptation is a real and urgent challenge for disadvantaged communities in the US? What evidence do you see?
  • What examples are you seeing of climate change effects already impacting disadvantaged groups in the US? What are the best examples of climate adaptation efforts benefiting disadvantaged populations?
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