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The Threat of Climate Change Among Vulnerable Populations

Landscape with tree in center of grass on one side and a dead leafless tree with dried up ground on the other

Not only is climate change detrimental to planetary health but it is a significant public health risk factor, especially among vulnerable populations.

Low-income communities, people of color, elderly populations, and children disproportionately feel the negative health impacts caused by global warming, from increased heart and lung complications to starvation, and various other health complications.

With scientists now predicting a 50:50 chance of temporarily reaching 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels in the next five years, it is increasingly vital to not only curb the catastrophic effects of climate change already upon us but to enact strong environmental policies and data-driven sustainability strategies that protect those most vulnerable.


Climate Change Contributors & Byproducts

The concentration of carbon and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has grown exponentially since the Industrial Revolution, an effect that traps heat and warms the Earth.

While fossil fuel corporations have created marketing campaigns espousing ways people can slash emissions and calculate your “personal carbon footprint,” research from the Carbon Majors Database finds that 100 active fossil fuel firms have been responsible for 71% of industrial GHG emissions since 1988.

The fashion industry is close behind: As the second-largest emitter, the $2.4 trillion-dollar industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions and 20% of wastewater production, according to a United Nations (UN) analysis.

As you can see, climate change yields myriad negative environmental impacts: 

Not only has extreme heat been dubbed a “global health risk factor,” but the climate crisis  has significantly impacted the water cycle, essentially making wetter areas wetter and drier areas drier, according to an explainer from the non-profit Climate Council. As the warmer air has a greater capacity to hold more moisture, storms and rainfall tend to produce short, intense downpours and flash flooding, it continues.

While sea levels rise to record heights, the world is witnessing more severe storms and hurricanes, fueled by warmer ocean temperatures and higher water levels.

Food and water insecurity are additionally rampant due to production disruptions and limited availability, and air pollution is one of the leading causes of death, attributed to 11.65% of global fatalities.

While these global warming byproducts continue to exacerbate the imperiled environment, they also compromise the health, well-being, and safety of vulnerable populations. 


Climate Change’s Impacts on Vulnerable Populations

Communities of color, older adults, children, and low-income populations often bear the brunt of climate change.

Between 2010 and 2020, extreme weather, flooding, and droughts killed 15 times as many people living in vulnerable nations than in wealthier regions.

“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,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement.

While these global warming byproducts continue to exacerbate the imperiled environment, they also compromise the health, well-being, and safety of vulnerable populations. 

According to a 2021 EPA Social Vulnerability Report, Black Americans are more likely to face more severe climate change impacts in air quality, health, extreme temperatures, labor, and flooding than all other demographics researched.

The report, titled ​“Climate Change and Social Vulnerability in the United States: A Focus on Six Impacts,” also noted that Hispanic and Latino populations are especially vulnerable to the effects of extreme temperatures due to high participation in construction, agriculture, and other weather-exposed industries.

“I don't want people to think that EPA is just about big rules, or that climate change is just about polar bears,” former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told U.S. News & World report. “It really is about direct public health issues like asthma and kids, like cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases associated with air pollution.” 

As with the many devastating consequences associated with structural racism, including inadequate infrastructure, health disparities, lack of social capital, and language barriers, climate disasters like flooding or physical damage to communities produce significant psychological stress, imbalance, and increased heart and lung complications, according to an American Public Health Association analysis.

Low-income communities typically possess inadequate infrastructure, fewer resources, and lack the means to evacuate during storms or to relocate their families permanently, often rendering them ​​displaced, malnourished, or psychologically distressed in instances of food insecurity, community damage, and flooding, the professional organization’s analysis continues.

Aging populations—which includes people with pre-existing conditions, low immunity, and limited mobility—frequently succumb to dehydration, heat-related illnesses, falls, heart disease, and psychological stress when faced with extreme heat, air pollution, and flooding. 

Even children, the analysis continues, are vulnerable because they spend more time outdoors, are dependent on adults, have developing organs and low immunity, and intake more air and drink more water than adults. When faced with air pollution, extreme heat, flooding and water contamination, food insecurity, or drought, children can develop an array of environmentally-catalyzed illnesses, including asthma and allergies, neurological disorders, heat-related illness, dehydration, diarrheal illness, drowning and injuries, psychological imbalances, Lyme disease, and malnutrition.


Adaptation Financing & Strong Environmental Policies

Unfortunately, while those most vulnerable feel the impacts of climate change most disproportionately, some of those same populations contribute the least to climate change. For instance, Africa was among the aforementioned vulnerable areas disproportionately affected by the flooding, droughts, and extreme weather that killed 15 times as many people than in wealthier areas, yet the continent contributes to less than 3% of global emissions.

These climate vulnerabilities underscore why leaders from developing countries are advocating for urgent adaptation financing.

“Looking forward, the upcoming global climate change negotiations will be a watershed moment for elevating adaptation within the global climate agenda and generating the much-needed resources to address the staggering financing gap,” Conservation International (CI) Vice President of Climate Strategy Shyla Raghav said in response to a devastating report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released last February. Raghav was referring specifically to COP27 in November, when world leaders meet in Egypt for an annual conference to discuss the climate crisis.

Amid the race to achieve net-zero emissions, there is still a dire need for countries to adapt to climate change. However, projected adaptation costs are “five to ten times greater than current public adaptation finance flows, and the adaptation finance gap is widening,” reads the UN’s Adaptation Gap Report 2021.

These climate vulnerabilities underscore why leaders from developing countries are advocating for urgent adaptation financing.

As the world approaches the 1.5 °C threshold that would spark even greater environmental consequences, time is dwindling for world leaders and policymakers to take coordinated action against not only curbing climate change but supporting vulnerable populations

It is increasingly vital global leadership invests in adaptation financing and enacts strong, data-driven sustainability strategies aligned with UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for environmental protection

While the public sector might rely on surveys to shape these important policies, traditional methods—while effective—often require ample time to produce and analyze results. 

The pressing environmental timeline demands more urgent real-time data solutions to inform policies. For instance, Citibeats’ Sustainability Monitor collects unstructured data from social media, blogs, forums, and more, intelligently generating real-time insights on climate change, food shortages, biodiversity, mobility, and other pressing conversational topics 90 days faster than traditional means. 

Displayed on a customizable dashboard, global leaders can instantaneously have access to millions of unfolding conversations regarding populations’ most pressing concerns. This full visibility empowers the public sector to recognize citizens’ key problems and concerns as they occur and create impactful solutions.

Now more than ever, world leaders must leverage this transformational technology to create desperately needed changes, advocate for the most vulnerable, and potentially save lives.

Citibeats utilizes ethical AI for social understanding, analyzing and interpreting unstructured data from social media, blog posts, forums, and more, and generating real-time insights to contextualize changes. Our Sustainability and Social Risk Monitors provide insights into millions of unfolding conversations, empowering world leaders to enact strong environmental policies and data-driven sustainability strategies.

Schedule a demo today to learn more.