Like the COVID-19 Pandemic, The Climate Crisis Will Hurt Marginalized Communities the Most

The schools are empty and the streets are bare. Boisterous cities have been eclipsed by profound stillness and daily routines have been replaced with uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic has quite literally placed the world on “pause”—testing our health care systems and our economy in the midst of global calamity. This pandemic, and similar global disasters, have lasting socioeconomic impacts on people all over the country, but are often far more distressing for people with low incomes

Like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change threatens to disrupt our systems and daily lives for the foreseeable future. And sadly, it will have disastrous implications for workers with low incomes and their families. Because of historic political, economic, and social inequities and injustice, individuals and families with low incomes and people of color experience and suffer from the harshest effects when these systems collapse. 

Millions of workers with low incomes have lost their jobs because of the pandemic or they continue to work in conditions that jeopardize their health, the health of their families, and the general public. This pandemic has exposed the flaws in our economic and public health systems while exacerbating the deep income, class and racial divide in the United States, particularly for African Americans . The current disaster has demonstrated how easily our global markets and societal norms can shift dramatically when hit with a global emergency.

In a recent study conducted by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, researchers have found that climate change will create new risks and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities in communities everywhere. The 2018 National Climate Assessment study also indicates that people who are already vulnerable, including communities with low incomes and those that’ve been marginalized, will have a much lower capacity to prepare for and cope with climate-induced events. And those communities will be hard hit by the effects of climate change that will impact the public health, safety, quality of life, and economic security in these populations.  

Rising air and water temperatures will increase the likelihood of exposure to water- and food-borne illness, increasing CO₂ levels will cause lengthier and more severe allergy seasons including asthma and hay fever, and warmer global seasons will broaden the geographical range of insects carrying infectious diseases. 

According to the Climate Assessment survey, populations like older adults, children, communities of color, and low-income communities will be the most affected by, and least resilient to, these health impacts. These communities are also vulnerable to inadequate health care and to the scarcity of resources, institutions, and information on ways to prepare for and avoid the worst of these health impacts. Poor environmental conditions tend to exacerbate public health concerns and in many cases can lead to fatal outcomes. 

As we have recently seen during this pandemic, many people with low incomes are facing health and economic challenges because they don’t have access to adequate preventative resources like face masks and hand sanitizer—and many also have low access to paid sick days. Many workers who were struggling with low wages have lost their job or been placed on indefinite unpaid leave without any income to support themselves or their families. Many small businesses have been forced to close, and many temp workers and contractors are out of work and struggling. With 30 million people filing for unemployment since March, this pandemic has created one of the biggest economic downturns we’ve seen.

As a nation, we can’t afford to wait for the next catastrophe to help those who most desperately need support. Neither can we afford to wait for the effects of climate change to take shape. Unless the United States adopts significant emissions-reducing mitigation action and expands policies to uplift low-income communities—such as investments in inclusive social safety net programs and improving the quality of jobs for all workers—many people in these communities will suffer greatly. 

Low-income communities need policies such as the Green New Deal, new federally mandated job quality standards such as paid sick leave, paid family and medical leave and fair and predictable schedules, and a higher federal minimum wage. They also need an expansion of programs that support basic needs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and many others to improve existing economic and health inequities and prepare for what’s to come. 

Improving the lives of marginalized people in both economic and human health is vital to alleviating the harm that the climate crisis poses to these communities. We must act now in combating the agents of climate change and work to uplift all communities to create a healthier planet and an equitable society.