Ask a Scientist: ‘Danger Season’ Summers Disproportionately Harm Disadvantaged Communities

August 10, 2022 | 4:00 pm
AP Photo/David Goldman
Elliott Negin
Senior Writer

Climate scientists at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have dubbed the six-month stretch from May through October the “Danger Season.” It’s an apt description of what has been happening worldwide during increasingly extended summers: sweltering heat, wildfires and chronic drought in some places, and supercharged hurricanes and devastating floods in others.

Not only has much of what climate scientists have been warning about come to pass, many of the extreme weather events the planet is now experiencing are worse than they expected. “To some extent, our predictions have been conservative,” Penn State University climatologist Michael E. Mann told the British public television network Channel 4 in mid-July. “Some of the impacts of climate change are playing out faster and with a greater magnitude than we predicted.”

Those impacts do not affect everyone equally. In the United States, low-income communities, many of which are communities of color, already suffer disproportionately from health and health care disparities and also bear the brunt of Danger Season weather events.

Juan Declet-Barreto, UCS senior social scientist for climate vulnerability, pays close attention to this issue. Before moving to the Washington, D.C., metro area in 2014, Dr. Declet-Barreto lived in Phoenix, where the average daily temperature now tops 98 degrees F from late May through mid-September. While he was there, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography and his doctorate degree in environmental social sciences at Arizona State University. His doctoral work focused on the impact of climate change-related extreme heat on urban populations, and last year, he was the lead author of a report on how to make neighborhoods at the northern end of Manhattan more resilient to summertime heat.

I interviewed Declet-Barreto last summer about that report, which found that low-income neighborhoods in Manhattan—where people of color have been forced to live due to racism and segregation—generally endure higher temperatures than wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, largely due to the lack of air conditioning, fewer trees and parks, and more pavement and other impervious, heat-absorbing surfaces.

Declet-Barreto, his colleagues at UCS, and others have been documenting the Danger Season burden that marginalized communities carry and are making policy recommendations to address the problem. I contacted him late last month for an update and—appropriately enough—daytime temperatures in Washington were hovering around 100 degrees F.

EN: What do you and your colleagues mean by the Danger Season?

JDB: When we think of summer, what typically comes to mind are popsicles, the beach and the pool, and vacations, right? While we still have those things, the facts show that climate change has transformed the months of May through October into what we are calling the Danger Season. The Danger Season is the time of the year when the United States experiences most of the heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes and tropical storms—and the floods they can cause—and it’s the season when extreme heat exacerbates droughts. And each of these types of climate-related weather events threaten human health and well-being. Exposure to extreme heat can cause heat stress and heat stroke, while storm surge and floods associated with hurricanes, and short-term exposure to polluted air from wildfire smoke, increase the risk of premature death. Put simply, climate change has transformed summer into the Danger Season.  

EN: No doubt, the Danger Season is here, and it is happening worldwide, not just in the United States. On a micro-level, your research has shown that some city neighborhoods have it much worse than others. It would be helpful to remind readers about the urban heat island effect and the related issue of micro-urban heat islands.

JDB: Cities have dense concentrations of asphalt, cement and other surfaces that absorb solar heat during the day and radiate it back into the environment. They make cities hotter than the more rural, less-developed areas outside of them. Scientists call this the urban heat island effect because, when you look at a map of temperatures, cities will appear as hot “islands” surrounded by a cooler “ocean” of lower temperatures in the surrounding areas. But large differences in temperatures don’t just occur between cities and rural areas. There are also dramatic temperature differences within cities due to the variety of their landscape features, which range from buildings and roads to trees and parks. They’re called micro-urban heat islands.

EN: The report you coauthored last year focused on disparities among Manhattan neighborhoods, but New York City is hardly unique. What other cities have you looked at?

JDB: I have analyzed population vulnerability to urban heat in Cleveland, Phoenix and Washington, D.C. In those cities—and in almost every other place where scientists have looked—the story is similar: Low-income communities, whose residents are often people of color, generally have the least shading vegetation and fewest green spaces in town, making them the hottest neighborhoods. The root causes are similar as well: chronic disinvestment, along with racial segregation and discrimination—which today are illegal—are still obstacles to quality housing, quality jobs and quality health care, not to mention a healthy environment.

The role these policies play in making low-income communities of color hotter is clear. I’m sure you are familiar with the term “redlining,” which refers to the discriminatory practice of denying home mortgages to people based on their race or ethnicity. Redlining was outlawed in 1968, but its impact is still being felt today. It led to severe disinvestment in urban communities of color, which—because of the lack of funds—have relatively little vegetation and few, if any, public parks, which help keep neighborhoods cool. A 2019 study found that nearly all of 108 formerly redlined urban areas across the country are on average hotter than nearby wealthier neighborhoods by 4.6 degrees F to as much as 12.6 degrees F.

My own research in the Phoenix metro area found that mortality rates attributable to extreme heat are higher for people of color, folks living in poverty, and residents who don’t have a high school diploma, don’t have access to air conditioning, or are not proficient in English. They all live in the hottest neighborhoods. This combination of sociodemographic and built environment conditions is often fatal for people living in these communities.

EN: Climate change is also turbocharging hurricanes. They are becoming more powerful, they’re dropping more rain, and they are intensifying more quickly. And they hit low-income communities the hardest.

JDB: That’s right. Hurricanes are becoming stronger, wetter, slower, and more destructive, and all of these trends have been linked to anthropogenic climate change. Even though today’s storm surveillance systems give folks in harm’s way days to prepare for a hurricane or evacuate to safer ground,  people living in low-income communities often have no choice but to shelter in place because they don’t have a car or enough money to relocate. Wealthier people, on the other hand, can and usually relocate and can often recover some of their material losses by making an insurance claim. But people who have to shelter in place in substandard housing in flood-prone areas are seriously endangered when storm surge and hurricane winds hit their communities.

Destruction from hurricane wind, rain and storm surge lays bare and amplifies existing socioeconomic inequities. It lays them bare because, as research shows, disparities in access to such resources as housing in an area not prone to flooding, flood insurance, or a family car and money for gas, food and a hotel room to relocate, are key determinants of who survives and recovers from a hurricane and who doesn’t.

Hurricane-related devastation amplifies inequities because people who are already facing hardship—and who are hit hardest by hurricanes—cannot recover quickly and often slip into more socioeconomic marginality. Nowhere in the United States has this been more evident recently than in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María in 2017. It’s been nearly five years since that tragedy, and the island has not fully recovered. Its housing and energy infrastructure is still unprepared for Danger Season hurricanes. 

EN: Let’s talk about what state and local governments, as well as the federal government, can do to better protect low-income neighborhoods and communities of color from extreme Danger Season weather events. Let’s focus on heat, given that is what you are most familiar with. What can state and local governments, together with communities, do?

JDB: State and municipal governments need to do their part to curb carbon emissions, but they also need to make a commitment to help their residents adapt to hotter conditions, which would  persist for a long time even if we were able to stop burning fossil fuels today. Some cities and counties are doing that. For example, Phoenix is taking heat mitigation seriously by establishing one of the first heat mitigation and response offices at the municipal level.

The Phoenix climate action plan includes the creation of “cool corridors” consisting of canopied vegetation to form shaded pedestrian corridors. The city is planning measures like that with experts in diverse, related fields, including public health and climate, and—critically—with  community members with long-standing expertise and knowledge of their neighborhoods and their most pressing issues.

Phoenix is not alone. Both Miami-Dade County in Florida and Los Angeles just hired their first chief heat officer, who will oversee heat mitigation efforts and address inequities related not only to heat impacts but also to other climate-change related phenomena, including droughts, hurricanes, floods and sea-level rise.

Obviously, the federal government also has a role to play to mitigate carbon emissions and protect the country from unavoidable climate impacts. The proposed Senate reconciliation bill would be a step in the right direction to cut emissions, and the Biden administration’s Justice 40 initiative promises to prioritize climate, energy and housing investments in historically marginalized and overburdened communities. Besides those two examples, Congress should pass two bills that would protect people from extreme heat: the Stay Cool Act and the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, which would help protect outdoor workers.

Every year, the Danger Season will continue to threaten everyone, but most especially the folks living in disadvantaged communities. Congress and the Biden administration must act now to dramatically reduce the emissions cooking the planet and, at the same time, protect vulnerable populations from the worst impacts of climate change.