Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

African Americans Are Disproportionately Exposed to Extreme Heat

Insights + Opinion
People walk in the Shaw neighborhood on July 20 in Washington, DC, where an excessive heat warning was in effect according to the NWS. Alex Wroblewski / Getty Images

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.


Adrienne L. Hollis is the lead climate justice analyst for the Climate & Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

The Yersinia pestis bacteria causes bubonic plague in animals and humans. Illustration based on light microscope image At 1000x. BSIP / UIG Via Getty Images

A herdsman in the Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia was diagnosed with the bubonic plague Sunday, The New York Times reported.

Read More Show Less
Plant pathologist Carolee Bull works in her home garden in State College, Pennsylvania. Carolee Bull, CC BY-ND

By Matt Kasson, Brian Lovett and Carolee Bull

Home gardening is having a boom year across the U.S. Whether they're growing their own food in response to pandemic shortages or just looking for a diversion, numerous aspiring gardeners have constructed their first raised beds, and seeds are flying off suppliers' shelves. Now that gardens are largely planted, much of the work for the next several months revolves around keeping them healthy.

Read More Show Less
Hotter temperatures have been linked to a rise in energy poverty, with more people struggling to meet their energy bills from their household income. Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Emma Charlton

The effects of climate change may more far-reaching than you think.

Hotter temperatures have been linked to a rise in energy poverty, with more people struggling to meet their energy bills from their household income, according to a new study published on ScienceDirect by researchers from Italy's Ca' Foscari University.

Read More Show Less
Naegleria fowleri (commonly referred to as the "brain-eating amoeba") is a free-living microscopic amoeba (single-celled living organism). Centers for Disease Control

As if the surging cases of coronavirus weren't enough for Floridians to handle, now the state's Department of Health (DOH) has confirmed that a person in the Tampa area tested positive for a rare brain-eating amoeba, according to CBS News. The Florida DOH posted a warning to residents to remind them of the dangers of the rare single-celled amoeba that attacks brain tissue.

Read More Show Less

Scientists are urging the WHO to revisit their coronavirus guidance to focus more on airborne transmission and less on hand sanitizer and hygiene. John Lund / Photodisc / Getty Images

The World Health Organization (WHO) is holding the line on its stance that the respiratory droplets of the coronavirus fall quickly to the floor and are not infectious. Now, a group of 239 scientists is challenging that assertion, arguing that the virus is lingering in the air of indoor environments, infecting people nearby, as The New York Times reported.

Read More Show Less
Along the northern shores of the Gulf of Mexico, oysters live in coastal estuaries where saltwater and freshwater meet and mix. Flickr / CC by 2.0

Along the northern shores of the Gulf of Mexico, oysters live in coastal estuaries where saltwater and freshwater meet and mix.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Japan Self-Defense Forces and police officers join rescue operations at a nursing home following heavy rain in Kuma village, Kumamoto prefecture on July 5, 2020. STR / JIJI PRESS / AFP / Getty Images

Scores of people remained stranded in southern Japan on Sunday after heavy rain the day before caused deep flooding and mudslides that left at least 34 people confirmed or presumed dead.

Read More Show Less