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People of color face disproportionate harm from climate change, EPA says

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People of color face disproportionate harm from climate change, a new analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency found.

Historically underserved communities are less able to prepare and recover from extreme weather events driven by climate change, including excessive heat, flooding and air pollution, the report released Thursday said.

Outlining six specific impacts of climate change, including poor health outcomes, EPA researchers found Black people are more likely to face higher risks to all six impacts defined in the report. The study was released days after the Department of Health and Human Services announced it is establishing the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity.

Public health experts already know communities of color are often more likely to experience childhood asthma and live in places that exacerbate it. That risk increases in Black people from 34% to 41% more likely as climate warms, according to the report, which analyzed projected risks.

Black people are also 40% more likely to live in areas with deaths related to extreme weather temperatures. As the temperature of the planet increases, that risk rises to 59%.

The report also highlights certain risks to Hispanic and Latino people, overrepresented in construction and agriculture jobs. As the climate warms, they are 43% more likely to live in areas with hours on the job cut due to extreme temperatures.

More: Irreversible changes, warmer temperatures sooner: 5 alarming findings from the UN climate change report

They are also 50% more likely to live in areas prone to coastal flooding, according to the report, which analyzed populations by income, education, race, ethnicity and age to determine social vulnerability.

While the EPA has long flagged environmental justice as a topic of concern, climate change scientists such as Dr. Aaron Bernstein say the report's focus on global warming and its effects on people of color is novel.

Bernstein, a pediatrician, is interim director of Harvard's Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, and studies the impact of climate change on children's health.

"This is an unprecedented focus on the very real concern of climate change and health to Americans in this administration and particularly the Americans who are most vulnerable to its harms," he said. "The same people who are most at risk for harm stand to benefit when we move forward on climate."

Bernstein likened climate change to the pandemic, calling both "systemic shocks" that thrive on inequality.

"The environmental justice movement was born out of the recognition that pollution and poverty are bedfellows," he said.

Dr. Jeremy Hess, an emergency medicine physician and professor at the University of Washington's Global Health and Emergency Medicine, said the study confirms climate-specific impacts on communities already overburdened by health disparities.

"As climate change worsens, those inequities are going to be more and more severe," said Hess, a lead author on several national and global climate assessments, including special reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"The hazards are likely to compound over time," he said. "A lot of these communities that are really highly impacted also have relatively few protections and limited options for reducing their risks."

Geochemist Gabriel Filippelli, director of Center for Urban Health at Indiana University and executive director of the Environmental Resilience Institute, also studies environmental health and climate change's impact on health.

"They are enumerating the many ways that climate change disproportionately impacts lower income and black and brown communities," he said. "Given that future climate change will likely exacerbate all of the impacts that are listed, this is a wake up call that we need to put a hand on the scales of justice to provide even more resources and capabilities to some of these over-burdened communities."

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Reach Nada Hassanein at or on Twitter @nhassanein_.