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During a record heat wave, let’s focus on urban environmental justice

If you haven’t accepted the reality that our world is heating up and causing an increase in extreme weather, it’s time to do so. In addition, if you haven’t accepted the reality that the world warming disproportionately affects minority populations (resulting from decades of environmental racism,) it’s time to do that as well.

It’s no secret that the world warming is a major cause for concern among scientists and non-scientists alike; this has been the case awhile now. But now, last month was recorded by NASA as the hottest month on record. Seriously – NASA has been tracking the temperature since 1880, and July 2023 became the hottest month in the last 143 years.

Given the gradual temperature increase, in the U.S. we’re seeing states like Arizona grappling with the effects. In parts of Arizona this summer, there was over a month straight of consecutive 110+ degree weather. For many vulnerable communities, the constant extreme heat can be very dangerous and even lethal in some cases.

Vulnerable populations, such as older folks and young kids, are at a higher risk, but guess who else is? That’s right – there are racial disparities when it comes to who encounters life-threatening heat, according to a new study.

Of course, this is not surprising, given what we know about the history of redlining and environmental racism in the U.S. However, it’s still an important topic to discuss and act on, especially considering the likelihood that the heat will be here to stay for a while.

The study, completed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, found that predominantly black urban areas are a half-degree warmer than the city average while predominantly white neighborhoods are a half-degree cooler than the city average.

A half-degree may not seem significant, but it will only worsen if we don’t take action to combat the disparate heat trends in urban areas. Because of redlining, neighborhoods with a predominantly minority population still don’t have as many trees and parks, which is a contributor to the average heat index.

Some U.S. cities, such as Boston, Massachusetts, are recognizing the history that led the city to this point and implementing programs to combat the heat disparities. Just last year, city officials outlined an Urban Forest Plan, intended to increase tree shade throughout the city with a specific emphasis on doing it equitably.

Data shows these actions are necessary. In the city of Boston, neighborhoods that were historically redlined are now 7.5 degrees hotter than other parts of the city during the day, they have 20% less parkland, and have 40% less tree canopy.

We need more major urban areas to do what Boston has done – recognize the issue and the historical mistakes that led to it then implement a plan to address the disparate heat equitably. It won’t be an easy task, but it must be done.