Every year, disasters such as hurricanes, floods, tornados, wildfires, landslides, and beyond ravage communities across the United States. All the while, increasing temperatures, and greenhouse gas emissions make everyday activity increasingly uncomfortable. Climate Change causes droughts, water bans, heat waves, extreme temperatures, and declining air quality. And with the emergence of global warming, these life-altering weather events become more and more frequent, affecting millions of people worldwide every year. Our changing climate accelerates these events, causing property damage and dangerous conditions in day-to-day life. It is difficult to ignore the consequences of Climate Change, especially for people experiencing homelessness, who are often subject to the worst of Climate Change’s effects.
Many communities—and particularly wealthier ones—have been fortunate not to experience Climate Change to its fullest extent. While Climate Change impacts everyone living under the sun, the implications are exacerbated for those experiencing financial or housing insecurity.
Over the past 20 years, scientists have gathered a nuanced and detailed understanding of our changing climate. Below are descriptions of some of its most potent effects:
Over the last two decades, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to climb as instances of climate disasters have nearly doubled. Scientists have proven that Climate Change is a large factor in both the frequency and intensity of these disasters.
As a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions, Earth’s temperature is increasing; consequently, the level of air pollutants and allergens has skyrocketed as well.
So what does this mean for all of us? Why are those facing housing and financial insecurity impacted the most? Well, in the United States, more than 50% of the population lives in areas where the air quality is below the National Ambient Quality Standards. Air pollution has a significant impact on human health and contributes to allergies, asthma, and other chronic respiratory diseases. Those who are impacted most are lower-income households, people of color, and other disadvantaged communities. What that means for these communities is early death, lower educational levels, and lower earnings. This issue is expected to worsen, as scientists predict air pollution related-mortality will rise by an additional 20-30% by 2050.
In particular, people experiencing homelessness confront the consequences of these changes in air quality. People experiencing housing or financial insecurity often live in parts of cities with less access to clean air, further exacerbating the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, in a survey of people experiencing homelessness in the United States, over 50% reported experiencing headaches caused by air pollution, and almost 90% sought medical treatment for environmental symptoms. All of these result in higher incidences of mortality, making environmental degradation a direct threat to the well-being of millions of Americans experiencing homelessness.
So too have we experienced ever-so-frequent heat waves in the last decade, with meteorological records rewritten more often than ever before. Because of a lack of resources such as shelter, cooling facilities, and water, these high temperatures place extreme distress upon people experiencing homelessness. A study done in California found that people experiencing homelessness are more likely to visit the ER during a heatwave. Beyond common dehydration or heat exhaustion, these extreme temperatures can be fatal. For example, last summer in Portland, Oregon, 83 people facing housing insecurity lost their lives to a heatwave. This number has drastically increased; compared to the 12 people unfortunately who died from this cause between 2017 and 2019 for the entire state of Oregon, this figure is unprecedented.
It can be more difficult for those experiencing homelessness to prepare for and recover from weather-related disasters due to a lack of financial, social, and physical resources. These disasters disproportionately affect those who already experience socioeconomic adversity, but they can also directly cause homelessness and financial instability. In 2020, Climate Change displaced nearly 31 million people, and almost 2 million of these people lived in the United States. And as these disasters become ever more frequent, they will force even more people into homelessness, only worsening America’s ongoing homelessness crisis.
These climate-related disasters change lives forever while posing enormous costs to individuals, communities, and entire nations. For instance, the cost of a year's temporary housing for Australia's 2019–20 bushfire evacuees amounted to $60–72 million. This funding could have instead been spent providing housing to those who are already experiencing homelessness or to prevent these disasters from occurring at all.
How can we prevent these disasters from taking place? What can we do to minimize the harm Climate Change inflicts upon disadvantaged communities and the general population? On an individual level, there are many different ways to slow the effects of Climate Change. Greenhouse-gas emissions can be minimized by opting for more sustainable modes of transportation such as cycling, using public transport, or walking instead of driving motorized vehicles. Additionally, reducing meat consumption, limiting trips made by air traffic, and using more recyclable materials, can be meaningful measures to reduce CO2 emissions.
While individual actions to reduce the effects of global warming and Climate Change should not be understated, we must respond to this pressing issue through policy on local, federal, and global scales. Disaster risk reduction and Climate Change adaptation are essential. The replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, investment in green spaces in urban or low-income areas, and expenditure on cycling or public transportation infrastructure are viable and necessary examples of how policy interventions can widely impact Climate Change. Greater investment in disaster risk reduction and planning can lessen disasters' implications on vulnerable populations and decrease costs to society.
The intersection of Climate Change and Poverty affects millions of people every year. And until we reduce our environmental footprint, break the cycle of homelessness, and protect the Earth we know and love, these crises will only worsen.