While climate change and environmental degradation affect everyone, their impacts are not equally distributed among populations and communities. Vulnerable populations, many of which are listed below, are disproportionately burdened by pollution, extreme weather events, higher temperatures, flooding, and vector-borne illnesses, among other climate change impacts. As communities across the United States look for long-term solutions to the climate crisis, understanding how it impacts people of different racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic backgrounds is imperative to achieving environmental equity and justice.
Communities of Color
Environmental racism refers to unequal access to a clean environment and basic environmental resources based on race. Racial segregation and discriminatory policies within government and social institutions have led communities of color to live in areas with higher levels of pollution, increasing their vulnerability to climate change. For instance, in the mid-20th-century, segregated Black and immigrant households were considered undesirable neighborhoods and faced systemic underinvestment and underdevelopment as a result. This practice, known as redlining, denied access to public services and amenities for communities of color. Although redlining was abolished in 1968, its legacy continues to disproportionately expose communities of color to environmental pollution, climate-risks, and heat-related impacts today. Historically redlined areas are more likely to be within a floodplain, and they experience worse urban heat island impacts.
Additionally, communities of color also face higher exposure to toxic waste and highly polluting activities. Over fifty percent of people that live near a toxic waste facility in the United States are people of color, and many studies have found that race is the leading predictor for the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities. African Americans are also more likely to live near natural gas facilities and oil refineries. As a result, communities of color experience greater exposure to air pollution, chemicals, lead, and other hazards which may lead to an array of adverse health effects.
Because older adults are prone to chronic health conditions and are more likely to develop disabilities, they also are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and overall environmental degradation. For instance, extreme heat events exacerbate the risk of illness and death among older adults because of their increased sensitivity to rapid temperature increases. During climate-related events, older adults are more likely to experience physical and mental barriers when evacuating to safety. Additionally, air pollution increases the risk of heart attacks in older adults. The Environmental Protection Agency has found a direct link between air pollution and heart health, stating that long term exposure to particulate matter and high levels of nitrogen oxides can prematurely age blood vessels and contribute to a more rapid buildup of calcium in the coronary artery.
Like older adults, young children have a higher vulnerability to climate change and environmental degradation given their physical and cognitive immaturity. Increased concentrations of air pollution can lead to the development of respiratory diseases such as asthma, as well as cause premature mortality in children. The Harvard School of Public Health found that thousands of children under five die each year due to respiratory infections associated with fossil fuel production worldwide. Additionally, since children usually spend more time outdoors, they have a greater exposure rate to allergens, insect-and-tick-related related diseases, and pollution. These factors become intensified with climate change, and negatively affect children’s physical and cognitive development. The degradation of nature can also indirectly impact children’s mental health, due to lost access to outdoor activities and opportunities to connect with nature.
Indigenous communities may rely more strongly than others on natural resources in support of traditional lifestyles, customs, and cultural practices. Because of their deep connection to the land and environment, Indigenous communities are disproportionately harmed by climate change and environmental degradation. For instance, climate change is contributing to the collapse of fisheries in many areas, ridding coastal Indigenous communities of a major source of food and income. These impacts may compound issues like food insecurity, forced displacement, deforestation, land erosion and poor soil conditions, contaminated water sources, and more. Taken together, climate change can exacerbate existing political and economic marginalization faced by Indigenous peoples.
Low-Wage Earners and Renters
Low-wage earners and renters are often unable to effectively adapt to environmental changes due to lower financial capacity and resource availability. The increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters such as flooding and fires can lead to displacement, affordable housing shortages, substandard living conditions, or costly home repairs for this demographic. Additionally, lower income homeowners and renters receive less public and private disaster aid due to a lack of insurance or lower property values. Without the proper assistance to repair damages, many have no choice but to abandon their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. For instance, U.S. Postal Service data show that Lake Charles, an area in Louisiana hit by two hurricanes in 2020, experienced 7 percent outward migration that year—the highest of any U.S. city. Citizens point to a failure by FEMA to assist the most vulnerable populations.
Climate change and environmental degradation can increase pregnancy risks. Researchers have shown that when pregnant people are exposed to higher temperatures or inhale excessive amounts of particulate matter and other air pollutants, infants are delivered prematurely, underweight, or stillborn with greater frequency. The 2020 State of Global Air report found that air pollution accounts for 20 percent of deaths among newborns worldwide and nearly 500,000 infant deaths in 2019. People of color, especially Black families, are disproportionately affected by pregnancy risks from environmental impacts.
People with Disabilities
People with disabilities face a diverse set of barriers and challenges in equitably accessing public amenities such as health care, education, financial services, and infrastructure. Societal shortcomings in accommodating individuals with disabilities can leave them more vulnerable to climate change impacts. For example, a person who uses a wheelchair may have greater difficulty responding to extreme weather events or evacuating an area at risk. Emergency response plans and communications strategies may not adequately accommodate all people with disabilities. Electricity outages from climate-fueled extreme weather may harm individuals who rely on electronic medical equipment. Infrastructure and economic damage from climate change also strains governmental budgets, limiting resources to address accessibility problems.
Many rural communities depend on agriculture as a main source of income and economic stability. However, agricultural production is increasingly threatened by climatic changes—extreme precipitation and flooding, shifting rainfall patterns, warming temperatures, prolonged droughts—as well as nutrient-depleted soils. These changing and often unpredictable weather patterns create significant difficulties and barriers for a healthy agricultural economy and environment.