Climate change will hit low-income communities the hardest as it takes a toll on the U.S. in general, says a blockbuster government report released on Friday.
Low-income communities in both urban and rural areas will be disproportionately impacted by climate change relative to other communities, according to the assessment, which was created by a team of over 300 experts from the government and the private sector to analyze the impact of climate change on the country.
Those communities already have higher rates of many adverse health conditions, are more exposed to environmental hazards and take longer to bounce back from natural disasters. These existing inequalities will only be exacerbated due to climate change, according to the report, which is known as the Fourth National Climate Assessment.
The report made waves in Washington despite being released the day after Thanksgiving, which prompted speculation that the Trump administration was trying to bury the findings. The assessment is at odds with the views of President Donald Trump, who has historically denied evidence of climate change. Last year, he announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which aims to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Earlier this month, he tweeted, “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS – Whatever happened to Global Warming?”
On Monday, Trump rejected the report’s findings about climate change’s economic impact. “I don’t believe it,” he told reporters on the White House South Lawn, as he was departing to hold campaign rallies in Mississippi.
Several politicians seized on the report’s release as an opportunity to promote their own plans for mitigating climate change. On Twitter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who was elected to represent part of New York City in Congress, touted her Green New Deal proposal, which aims to create a committee in the House that would develop a plan to generate all of the country’s electricity from renewable energy.
“People are going to die if we don’t start addressing climate change ASAP,” she said in the tweet.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, also tweeted about the Climate Risk Disclosure Act she introduced in September, which would require publicly traded companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions.
Health and jobs at risk
Heart and lung disease, heat stroke and bacterial infections are just a few of the health consequences associated with climate change. Low-income populations “typically have less access to information, resources, institutions, and other factors to prepare for and avoid the health risks of climate change,” the report says, leaving them especially vulnerable. Lack of health insurance among the poor will also intensify the risks of illnesses caused by climate change.
In urban areas, which produce 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in North America, the poor “live in neighborhoods with the greatest exposure to climate and extreme weather events,” the report says. This includes living near pollution sites and in housing developments without sufficient insulation or air conditioning. Additionally, disruptions to infrastructure during natural disasters can have an outsized impact on city residents who rely on public transportation.
Rural areas often have agriculture-dependent economies, so the livelihoods of low-income residents are more vulnerable to changing environmental conditions.
Many rural households also suffer from energy poverty, the report states, meaning they “are not able to adequately heat or provide other required energy services in their homes at affordable cost.” As average temperatures continue to rise, people who cannot affordably cool their houses will continue to feel financial strains.
Disasters and ‘green gentrification’
Recent storms like Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Harvey, which brought record levels of flooding to coastal areas, also exposed inequities in disaster preparedness as poorer communities struggled to rebuild.
“Some property owners can afford to modify their homes to withstand current and projected flooding and erosion impacts,” write the report’s authors. “Others who cannot afford to do so are becoming financially tied to houses that are at greater risk of annual flooding.”
Even climate change prevention efforts can reflect existing inequalities, according to the assessment. “Better-resourced communities have created climate offices and programs, while response has lagged in smaller or poorer communities,” the report says.
Infrastructure improvements to protect against climate change can lead to what the report calls “green gentrification,” in which property values rise and low-income residents are pushed out.
To combat these inequalities, the report emphasizes the need for government officials to involve residents when developing solutions to climate change.
“Decisions about where to prioritize physical protections, install green infrastructure, locate cooling centers, or route public transportation,” should be made with low-income communities in mind, according to the report.