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African Americans Are Disproportionately Exposed to Extreme Heat
By Adrienne Hollis
Climate change is a threat multiplier. This is a fact I know to be true. I also know that our most vulnerable populations, particularly environmental justice communities — people of color and/or low socioeconomic status — are suffering and will continue to suffer first and worst from the adverse effects of climate change. Case in point? Extreme heat.
After reading the Killer Heat Report, most people probably used the interactive mapping tool to find specific city and county information. I know I did! See, I grew up in Mobile, Alabama. My Mom and many other family members and friends still live in the Gulf Coast area, and I am very familiar with the heat. I hung out on beaches in Alabama, Florida and Louisiana, I attended college in Mississippi and graduate school in Tennessee. I've lived and worked in pretty much every state in the southeast, and now I live in Maryland.
But the extreme heat temperatures that people in the southeast are currently experiencing and will experience in the future is worse than anything I experienced. So yes, I was curious about the effect of extreme heat on African Americans.
Using data from the Killer Heat Report, we asked what effect the extreme heat days would have on African Americans. My colleague Dr. Kristy Dahl, a co-author of the report, examined the average number of days with a heat index above 105°F in counties where African Americans make up 25 percent or more of the population (which is about twice the national average) vs. those counties that are less than 25 percent African American.
Then, she further refined the data by including the average number of days with a heat index above 105°F, both historically and in midcentury. What was discovered was shocking and sadly serves as proof and an example of the above statement related to at-risk populations.
Where do we live, and are we at risk?
Counties in the Southeast have the highest concentration of African Americans. Not a surprise for those of us who are from the South, but interesting, nonetheless.
As it happens, those same areas are also where the map "lights up" for increased extreme heat days.
Taken from the Killer Heat Report
Currently, counties with large African American populations are exposed to extreme temperatures 2-3 more days per year than those counties with smaller African American populations. And by midcentury, the expectation is that those same counties would experience about 20 more extreme heat days per year.
The historical data also showed that African Americans have been disproportionately affected by extreme heat. Sh*t just got real for me! About 40 percent of the total U.S. African American population vs. 3.0. percent of the U.S. general population will be affected.
In addition, the extreme temperatures in some of the urban parts of those counties are probably hotter than surrounding counties because of the Urban Heat Island Effect (UHI).
As described in my recent blog post, the UHI effect occurs because cities are much warmer than surrounding rural areas – cities resemble an "island" of heat among a broader "sea" of cooler temperatures. Concrete, glass, asphalt and other surfaces that make up cities trap heat during the day and then release it at night, but it escapes much slower than it was trapped, so there is not much relief from the heat.
But, because we are not incorporating information on the UHI here, I think it's safe to say that we are probably seriously underestimating the real number of extreme heat days that African Americans in these counties really experience.
As I mentioned at the top of this blog, climate change is a threat multiplier. We already know that there are communities in these same coastal states that are already suffering from coastal flooding and extreme weather conditions including more frequent and severe hurricanes and 100-year flood events.
The extreme heat is almost three additional weeks' worth of extreme heat days for places that are more than 25% African American as opposed to those that are less than 25% African American. The reasons why African American communities are and will continue to experience more extreme heat days are likely complex, but it's probable that the root of the problem can be traced back to centuries of systemic mistreatment of people of color.
What I do know is that the results really personalize the climate crisis for me, underscoring the need for urgent action. Everyone is at risk from the effects of extreme heat, particularly those living in areas forecast to have the highest temperatures – and among them, those with the fewest resources to cope.
So, what needs to be done? Mitigation of the exposure to extreme heat. Cities and states need to develop emergency response plans that specifically address climate change, in this case extreme heat. These plans should focus on strengthening infrastructure and ensuring that people are equipped to deal with extreme heat conditions, both financially and emotionally. In the meantime, we can utilize resources that are already available, like this one and this one.
The goal of any plan to address the climate crisis is to ensure resilient counties, cities and states. In order to achieve that goal, action must be taken now. Inaction is not an option.
Pollution, Race and the Search for Justice https://t.co/OMWQS2NkNg @greenpeaceusa @foodandwater @ClimateReality @YEARSofLIVING
— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch) March 5, 2018
Adrienne L. Hollis is the lead climate justice analyst for the Climate & Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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By Tracy L. Barnett
Sources reviewed this article for accuracy.
For Sicangu Lakota water protector Cheryl Angel, Standing Rock helped her define what she stands against: an economy rooted in extraction of resources and exploitation of people and planet. It wasn't until she'd had some distance that the vision of what she stands for came into focus.
Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.
The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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