Disadvantaged Populations Feel the Heat

The connection between environmental quality and the predicament of disadvantaged populations is coming into ever-sharper relief.

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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  • Ryan Bowen's avatar

    BY Ryan Bowen

    ON August 3, 2012 08:25 PM

    In response to your first question, I definitely believe it is a real and urgent challenge.  To me the place to watch as things escalate is the American Southwest.  The drying up of the Colorado River is already affecting a huge amount of people, but it will continue to affect more and more populations.  Disadvantaged populations will see it first.

    Another place to look would be at American Indian reservations.  Their communities are often already impacted by resource extraction, but I am sure you will be able to observe effects of climate change in those communities.

  • Karim Al-Khafaji's avatar

    BY Karim Al-Khafaji

    ON August 6, 2012 11:18 AM


    Thanks for input; it is very helpful.  We have indeed been thinking about the Southwest (and tribal areas in particular) due to the combination of heat, drought, water scarcity and wildfires that will increasingly impact the region.  It will be interesting to see what adaptation solutions communities develop to combat these mounting challenges.

  • Leslie Browning's avatar

    BY Leslie Browning

    ON August 6, 2012 01:43 PM

      We need desalination plants.
    They are doing it in El Paso, Australia, and other places…
      We need Solar power towers.  Mirrors directing sunlight to boiling water in towers. Use solar energy to turn turbines to make free clean energy.
      The people in these communitites could be trained and employed to build and work in these plants that give them free clean energy! Then they would have an advantage instead of a disadvantage.  Make sure the money raised is invested in actual hardware and training of people that produces clean water and electricity while also providing education and jobs. 
      Spend the money raised and get four plus benefits instead of spending the money on pepsi to buy plastic bottles of dasani water for thirsty people or instead of giving the money to the power company to pay poor fixed income peoples power bills. 
      Teach a grandson and granddaughter how to install a water system or windmill on grandma’s house. heck teach the grandmas too (my grandmas could really do stuff). Completely bypass the big companies and go straight to the families.
      Look at the barefoot illiterate grandmother’s solar project in africa. ...

  • BY Elizabeth Yeampierre

    ON August 7, 2012 08:49 AM

    To environmental justice communities throughout the US,  this is neither new nor surprising. We agree that funding should be directed to environmental and climate justice organizations that are community grounded and working diligently to address climate adaptation and community resiliency in the nation’s most vulnerable communities. I am surprised that the article did not refer to this crises as an environmental justice issue or draw attention to the work being done to address it-  The article correctly lifts a flag-but this flag has already been raised by community leaders in places like Brooklyn, the Bronx, Chicago, Detroit,  Indian Country, Alaska, Appalachia, New Orleans, - the list is long and the people carrying the charge are people of color and low-income communities whose historical engagement and funding challenges must be recognized.

  • As a person with a history in social change organizing in Miami, and someone who recently reviewed the latest statistics, no one is ready.

    Miami is literally ground zero for the western hemisphere in terms of population and dollars hit. We already have our freshwater wells disappearing, and entire sections of land with thousands of residents will see displacement within my lifetime. 

    I say we aren’t ready because we aren’t aren’t asking the secondary questions. Areas with the highest elevation are low income areas- when south beach is displaced what developer will already have bought up that land? If our likihood of seeing another Wilma or Katrina is increased 15 fold in the next few decades, how/ who will pay for costs to infrastructure? Where will those displaced people go? Will we see a wave of public structures privatized?

    Not only not ready, but not where near where we need to be, and not asking the questions we need to ask. Looking forward to your work,

  • Laura w.'s avatar

    BY Laura w.

    ON August 9, 2012 03:39 PM

    In Texas, I don’t see our water restrictions ending anytime soon.  I am amazed by how focused people become on keeping their lawns green rather than conserving water for people to use for drinking!  While we are a bit more used to extreme heat than those in cooler parts of the country, our disadvantaged population is very vulnerable.  People need to check on their neighbors.  We need community programs to help.  Where are the super wealthy churches?

  • BY Karim Al-Khafaji

    ON August 13, 2012 09:38 PM


    Thanks for the feedback. Your point is well taken.  As you rightly point out, EJ groups and communities have been doing some incredible work on a variety of environmental topics for years, and several are being quite intentional and explicit about climate resilience (or considering the changing climate in a broader dialogue about community resilience). 

    We completely agree that there is a fundamental question of justice with respect to climate impacts, but don’t see this solely as an “EJ” issue.  Or put another way, we don’t want climate adaptation to be yet another burden for EJ groups to bear.  We find it striking that in fields like education, quote-unquote mainstream organizations take an equity lens (cf. Teach for America’s mission statement), yet in environmental arenas questions of equity are frequently pigeon-holed as “EJ” issues as if they are a kind of special interest that “EJ” groups will address.  Similarly, we think climate change impacts have far-reaching implications that extend beyond “traditional” environmental boundaries.  For example, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in community revitalization and community-led reform efforts, as exemplified by the creation of the White House Council for Community Solutions, but it is not clear that many of these reform efforts are even considering whether their efforts might be put at risk because of the additional stress and changing context imposed by climate change.

    One of our motivations in writing this blog and posing these questions to readers was to identify and raise up real bright spots where disadvantaged communities have successfully begun preparing for the increased stress of a changing climate.  It is our hope that lessons learned in these communities can be shared and replicated more broadly.  Of the various places you mentioned, we wonder which ones you regard as real success stories that could be emulated.  And which ones might be cautionary tales? We look forward to connecting with you to better understand the experiences in the communities you mention.   

    Jacob & Laura,
    Thanks for your insights.  Florida and Texas both seem to be on the frontlines of climate impacts…are you seeing meaningful adaptation occuring in your communities?

  • BY Karim Al-Khafaji

    ON August 27, 2012 01:51 PM


    We’d love to learn more about what is happening in Miami from the community organizing perspective.  Please reach out via my Twitter handle or through the Bridgespan website (http://www.bridgespan.org).  Thanks.

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