Climate Crisis

As Northeast Temperatures Rise, Low-Income Neighborhoods and Ethnic, Racial Minorities are Expected to Feel the Heat More

As the climate crisis intensifies, the Northeast is expected to see some of the greatest regional warming in the country. (istock)

The report released Aug. 9 by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) raised alarm over rapidly rising global temperatures, and, according to researchers at the University of Utah, some neighborhoods in the Northeast are already feeling the heat more than others.

The recent University of Utah study, soon to be published in Environmental Research, showed that within the Northeast intense heat was focused in areas with lower incomes, more vulnerable populations and higher proportions of racial and ethnic minorities. Whereas, neighborhoods that were “whiter, wealthier and more racially homogenous” stayed cooler.

“Even though climate change is something that we’re all going to experience, we don’t all experience it the same way,” said sociology doctoral student Roger Renteria, lead author on the study. “There [are] communities that experience it at much higher extremes and also don’t have the resources to try to combat it.”

Heat is a “unique hazard” with less of an “explosive presence” than many other natural disasters, according to Renteria, but its dangers are very real. More than 100 deaths have been recorded during the record-breaking temperatures in the Northwest this summer.

As the climate crisis intensifies, the Northeast is expected to see some of the greatest regional warming within the United States, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. NASA data show 19 of the planet’s hottest years have occurred since 2000. And cities are bearing the brunt of the warming by absorbing and trapping heat inside a dense urban landscape built upon concrete and asphalt and lacking significant tree canopy and green space.

Volumes of previous research has shown racial and social patterns to heat distribution. But Renteria and his team dove into land surface temperature and sociodemographic data from 2013-17 to see how the phenomenon is playing out in Northeast neighborhoods in particular.

They found neighborhoods with high proportions of Latino, Black and Asian populations faced temperatures several degrees warmer than average, with the most intense heat focused in areas with large Latino populations. As neighborhood incomes decreased, temperatures rose significantly, according to the study. And neighborhoods with high levels of diversity and racial integration witnessed some of the hottest temperatures in the region.

Homogeneity, Whiteness and affluence, on the other hand, “kind of have a protective effect,” according to Renteria. Outdoor temperatures remained cooler, and residents also had more resources to escape the heat.

It’s a mark of historical patterns of residential segregation, redlining and racial inequality in the United States, Renteria said. And it indicates the boundaries persist even as some areas diversify.

He said global warming is something that we are dealing with now and will be dealing with in the future at a much more extreme level.

Research by his team also revealed that many of the region’s most-vulnerable people live in high-heat areas. Temperatures remained stable in areas with high concentrations of people with disabilities and those over the age of 65 — both of whom are vulnerable to heat-related illness.

But areas with many kids — who are less able to thermoregulate and are often unable to communicate their cooling needs — saw temperatures rise nearly 1 degree Celsius higher than average.

“You start to think about how this is a snapshot in time, and we’re going to have children that are going to be living in pretty extreme conditions,” Renteria said. “The impact on their overall well-being is pretty alarming … and the long-term effects of, say, some sort of heat-related illness or even heat-related morbidity are pretty high.”

Heat also rose in neighborhoods where many lacked access to personal cars. Without a car, Renteria said residents can face difficulty reaching air-conditioned public spaces and cooler outdoor environments, and cannot make use of vehicle air conditioning while in transit. These areas take on the greatest temperatures with no escape, he said.

With heat varying widely across the region, Renteria said, communities need to focus attention in the areas that need it most. Fans, air-conditioning centers and resources for welfare visits for those most vulnerable to heat-related illness could go a long way in limiting heat-related hospitalizations and deaths, especially as the climate rapidly heats up.

The recently released IPCC report provides new estimates of the chances of crossing the global warming level of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) in the next decades, and finds that unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5 degrees or even 2 degrees Celsius will be beyond reach.

“Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways,” according to the U.N.’s comprehensive assessment. “The changes we experience will increase with additional warming.”

The report projects that in the coming decades climate changes will increase in all regions. For 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, there will be increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons. At 2 degrees of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health.

“The sad part about it is that communities throughout the world are going to experience it and they’re going to be in the front lines of all this,” Renteria said. “And so, we really have to try to focus our priorities to try to aid folks … and be more resilient to the impacts of heat.”

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  1. Urban areas, like Providence, where tree canopy to cool neighborhoods is very limited in poorer neighborhoods like Olneyville, Silver Lake, Manton, Charles, Smith Hill. The city should be looking to spend some of the COVID $ that it received to develop and implement a massive tree planting program in those neighborhoods.

  2. I agree with Robert that a tree planting effort (including building community support) should be made with relief money where tree cover is sparse. In general, I think its questionable both on substance and on politics to keep emphasizing climate change impacts on minority communities. First of all, there are are plenty of impacts on all classes – wealthy shoreline property owners from sea level rise, suburbanites, even wealthy Germans, are victims of flooding, farmers of droughts, rural residents from wildfires etc If there is any issue we are all in it together its climate change on a global scale. Secondly, its hard enough to get people to act in their own self-interest, emphasizing acting in the interests of minorities seems to narrow the coalitions we need unnecessarily

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