EPA confirms climate impacts are more adverse for racial minorities in the Southwest

By: - September 14, 2021 6:37 am
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Nationally temperatures are expected to increase by 2 degrees Celsius, but large areas of the Southwest — including parts of Nevada — are projected to experience average annual temperature increases of between 3 C and 4 C. (Getty Images)

The worst effects of climate change are disproportionately falling on “underserved communities who are least able to prepare for, and recover from, heat waves, poor air quality, flooding, and other impacts,” according to an Environmental Protection Agency report released last week.

The peer-reviewed report forecasts how the impacts of climate change will be distributed across racial and ethnic minority communities across the country, and is one of the most advanced environmental justice studies to date, said the EPA in a statement.

“The impacts of climate change that we are feeling today, from extreme heat to flooding to severe storms, are expected to get worse, and people least able to prepare and cope are disproportionately exposed,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. 

Researchers for the EPA looked at six types of climate impacts among four socially vulnerable populations based on income, educational attainment, race and ethnicity and age. The impacts included health changes due to air quality and extreme temperature, and effects on weather-exposed workers.

Temperature change is not uniform across the country, however. 

Nationally temperatures are expected to increase by 2 degrees Celsius, but large areas of the Southwest including parts of Nevada are projected to experience average annual temperature increases of between 3 C and 4 C.

Premature deaths in the Southwest are projected to increase dramatically due to the rise in temperatures, seeing annual increases of 610 premature deaths with 2 C of global warming and 1,200 premature deaths with 4 C of global warming. 

Researchers for the Desert Research Institute have already traced how extreme heat has led to an increase in premature deaths in 2020. DRI research scientist Erick Bandala found that the increase in extreme heat in Southern Nevada correlated with an increase in the number of COVID-19 deaths last year. 

“We discovered that the analysis shows the correlation to be statistically significant,” Bandela said.

Climate change-driven increases in ozone will also result in the premature deaths of the elderly, according to the EPA analysis.

Clark County is experiencing growing ozone pollution after nearly a decade decline, a reverse largely due to growing numbers of wildfires in the West which have contributed to more ground-level ozone.

Growing fires have also resulted in an increase of fine particles called PM2.5 found in air pollution that exacerbates respiratory illness by impairing the immune response.

The Southwest is expected to see 10 additional premature deaths annually due to climate-driven effects on PM2.5 at 2 C of global warming and as many as 30 premature deaths at 4 C  global warming, said the report.

Additional COVID-19 deaths due to a rise in PM2.5 in Northern Nevada has already been documented by researchers.

The increase of PM 2.5 from wildfire smoke in 2020 was responsible for a nearly 18% increase in the number of COVID-19 cases that occurred during a period of prolonged smoke in 2020, according to a DRI study.

Since 2000, national average concentrations of PM2.5 have been reduced by 41%, said the EPA. However, those gains are likely to see a reverse as climate change alters weather patterns and sparks more wildfires.

The EPA report listed numerous ways that low-income and minority families will be more vulnerable to illnesses and other impacts of climate change, particularly in the Southwest. Some of those impacts in the Southwest include:

  • With 2 C of global warming, the Southwest is projected to see an annual increase of 1,000 childhood asthma diagnoses due to an increase in PM2.5. At 4 C of global warming, asthma diagnoses for children would increase to 2,000 annually.
  • Minority children in the Southwest are 14% more likely than non-minority children to currently live in high-impact areas.
  • Black and African American children ages 0 to 17 have the most disproportionately high risk of developing climate-driven asthma.
  • With 4 C of global warming, Black and African American children are 41% more likely than non-Black and non-African American children to currently live in areas with the highest projected impacts. 
  • In the Southwest, those with low incomes are also 20% more likely than those with higher incomes to currently live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma diagnoses due to climate-driven changes in PM2.5.
  • Climate change is projected to result in a significant increase in the number of days above 90 degrees in Nevada, resulting in reductions in labor hours for weather-exposed workers, like construction or landscape workers.
  • Workers in the Southwest are projected to lose 17 hours of labor per worker per year with 2 C of global warming, and a decrease of 34 hours of labor with 4 C of global warming.
  • Changes in labor hours will likely disproportionately affect immigrant workers, says the EPA.  In 2005, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) reported that immigrants comprised more than one-third of the construction workforce in Nevada.
  • Low income individuals are also 28% more likely than those with higher incomes to currently live in areas with the highest projected losses of labor hours due to climate-driven increases in high-temperature days. 

A report by the Guinn Center also released last week emphasized the importance of strengthening heat resiliency in communities of color in Southern Nevada. 

Clark County is the most diverse county in Nevada, and the 22nd most diverse county in the United States, fueled by a growth in the Latino population.

Communities most vulnerable to extreme heat in Southern Nevada include older urban neighborhoods in East Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, West Las Vegas, Spring Valley, and Winchester.

“In total, an estimated 115,000 people live in the highly vulnerable areas. A full 80 percent are people of color – more than half identify as Hispanic/Latino, 17 percent as Black/African American, and 6 percent as Asian,” according to the Guinn report.

Communities with less resources to adapt to extreme heat were also concentrated in the areas of East Las Vegas, West Las Vegas, and North Las Vegas.

Effective mitigation strategies will need to rely on people who live in the communities most impacted to identify key short-term strategies, said Alison Cook-Davis, associate director of research at the Arizona State University Morrison Institute for Public Policy, which partnered on the Guinn report.

“There are a number of great efforts by states and cities to plan and mitigate climate change, however extreme heat mitigation also requires proximal strategies to assist with the community resilience required to endure the annual high temperatures in states like Nevada and Arizona,” said Cook-Davis.

A survey conducted by the Guinn Center found that almost two-thirds of the Nevadans interviewed said they were very concerned about the risks posed by extreme heat and less than one-third thought the government was doing enough to help the community address extreme heat.

“Our interviews revealed that community members experience extreme heat in transit when they are walking their children to school or waiting for the public bus or driving in their cars,” said Nancy Brune, executive director of the Guinn Center. “Our decision makers need to think about policy measures, programs, and services that reduce an individual’s vulnerability to extreme heat during transit or in the workplace.”

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Jeniffer Solis
Jeniffer Solis

Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.

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