Already Vulnerable Populations Face Greater Risks From Climate Change, Report Finds

People living in poverty, tribal communities, immigrants and the elderly are expected to suffer disproportionately from problems caused by a changing climate, according to a new report. Photo: iStockphoto

Californians can expect more wildfires, extreme heat, coastal flooding, water shortages and health problems in the years to come, but these problems won’t affect everyone equally, according to a new state assessment on climate change.

People living in poverty, tribal communities, immigrants and the elderly are expected to suffer disproportionately from problems caused by a changing climate, according to the report released this week by the California Natural Resources Agency.

While affluent Californians have resources to shield themselves from some of climate change’s impacts, many impoverished communities face financial, social, political and environmental barriers, the assessment found. Low-income people have less access to air-conditioning and cooling centers during heat waves, for example. They also frequently live in areas already vulnerable to pollution and natural disasters, yet may lack insurance and other economic means to recover when catastrophes strike, the report found.

Additionally, people who are socially disadvantaged are at greater risk for health problems. These problems can be exacerbated by extreme heat, wildfire smoke, vector-borne diseases and other challenges wrought by a changing climate.

“Climate change is a threat multiplier,” said Sona Mohnot, a policy analyst for the Oakland-based non-profit Greenlining Institute, which contributed research to the report. “It will exacerbate a lot of the poverty and pollution in communities that are most impacted already.”

Mohnot said the assessment, now in its fourth year, is the first to include a section focused on climate justice: the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable communities and how to mitigate those inequities. The inclusion points to a growing recognition among state officials and policy makers of the need to take these vulnerabilities into account, she said.

The assessment also includes a report on the impacts of climate change on California’s tribal communities. The report details how tribes are particularly reliant on local water supplies and ecological resources for their livelihoods and traditional practices.

Some of the changes are already affecting tribes. For example, tribal gatherers in Central California are struggling to gather enough Black Oak acorns for their cultural events, according to the report.

Additionally, tribal lands tend to be isolated and close to areas vulnerable to wildfires, the assessment found. Nevertheless, infrastructure and exit routes are often inadequate for emergencies.

Ron Goode, chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe in Madera County, and lead author of the tribal report, said Native Americans were historically better able to adapt to climate challenges.

Before colonization “tribes moved around within their homeland,” he said. “Now we can’t do that. Now we’re locked into communities and reservations.”

Tribes traditionally used controlled burning to reduce wildfire risk, Goode said. These days, environmental regulations make it difficult for tribes to carry out these ancient practices, a problem that needs to change, he said.

Mohnot with the Greenlining Institute called the assessment “a good start,” but she said more funding is needed to act on recommendations for building the resilience of vulnerable communities. Additionally, valuable data collected by community groups was excluded from the report because it wasn’t peer-reviewed, she said.

“It’s great that climate justice is getting this attention, but there were a lot of missed opportunities,” she said. “There needs to be space for community participatory research methods and citizen science moving forward because if this report is ultimately trying to address issues vulnerable communities are facing, these communities have to have a voice in the research process and any solutions that come out of it.”

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