Last week’s heat wave was a miserable, deadly, wake-up call.
While the details continue to emerge and the human cost is still being tallied, we know that hundreds of people lost their lives in the Northwest during the heat wave, one that climate scientists say is a manifestation of climate change. In Oregon alone, the early count of heat deaths — which are likely to rise — exceeded the total from the last 20 years combined.
We all felt the impacts of the scorching heat, but it was not felt equally.
According to research published in Nature Communications, people of color are disproportionately exposed to urban heat. Landlocked areas with high amounts of concrete and low numbers of trees and shade are known as “heat islands.” The researchers found that in nearly all urban areas, the average person of color — regardless of income — lived in an area with higher heat island intensity.
Local research on the same phenomenon done by the city of Seattle and King County found that the differences between the hottest and coolest parts of comparable Seattle areas measured at the same time can differ by up to a shocking 23 degrees, due to disparities such as tree canopy and location of industrial areas.
Unsurprisingly, the areas with the hottest heat islands are also the areas where people of color are concentrated. They also correlate to areas with the highest environmental health disparities as well. My Rainier Beach neighborhood, for example, has the highest possible health disparity score of 10.
Many of these disparities can be traced back to the legacy of housing segregation, neighborhood redlining and environmental racism, such as placing polluting businesses in communities of color. One study found that formerly redlined neighborhoods in nearly every city were hotter than those that were not redlined, according to NPR. Consequently, Scientific American reported that extreme heat and air pollution are a leading cause of death for communities of color.
Disparities in tree canopies, which you can now see through an online interactive Tree Equity Score, also make a big impact on an area’s ability to stay cool. The New York Times reported that affluent areas had nearly 50% more greenery than lower-income communities.
We’ve been warned for decades that human-caused climate change would heat up our planet, resulting in deadly heat events like the one we experienced in the Northwest, and a multitude of other environmental catastrophes. But as the issue became politicized, climate change deniers led by the fossil-fuel industry and abetted by politicians succeeded in muddying the waters for over 30 years about whether humans were contributing to rising temperatures.
Worse, instead of advancing solutions to tackle climate change, we fell four years further behind with the Trump administration rolling back over 100 rules and policies aimed at attacking the problem.
Now, it seems like finally climate change both-sidesism is somewhat waning.
Savitha Reddy Pathi, the deputy director of clean-energy nonprofit Climate Solutions, said what we saw the past week exemplified the pattern of communities of color being the “first and worst” impacted by climate change, despite contributing the least to the problem. Pathi began working on this issue during the Kyoto Protocol climate change negotiations in 1997, and is frustrated by the lack of progress since then.
Pathi said we are feeling the impacts of our inaction now. “If we could have done some things [to address climate change] over 25 years ago, it would have made such a big difference for now,” she said.
But even as we quickly approach the “too late” stage of our response to this existential global threat, Pathi said there are still many things we can do to mitigate the worst impacts.
“What really gives me hope on this is here in the Northwest, we really can be the first region in the country to get to 100% clean grid with electricity and transportation and if we can do that here, and if other states can do it, then we can do it around the country,” Pathi said. “We can invest in clean and equitable solutions that benefit everybody, not just the few.”
To that end, Pathi pointed to a number of legislative wins this past session that put environmental justice front and center and addressed emissions.
Also the heat wave made climate change more tangible for people, Pathi said, which might help to encourage action.
“What this last year and a half of this pandemic has hopefully taught us is how interconnected we really are,” Pathi said. “And that we are all responsible for the common good of each other. We all need to be in this movement together to really be able to make more progress on this issue.”