But those deaths aren’t equally distributed, and the disparities result from hundreds of different social, economic, and health factors, which leave Black and Indigenous people most susceptible to extreme heat.
A new mapping and data tool built by Environmental Defense Fund and Texas A&M University researchers outlines those factors — 184 of them to be exact — in hopes of giving people the knowledge to understand the climate risks they face and the tools to advocate for more resources.
This August, for example, the major hospital in Beaumont, Texas, saw a 75% increase in heat-related hospitalizations. According to the new mapping tool, the city experiences more heat-related deaths than 93% of the country, yet the map also outlines a significant gap: publicly funded services and resources. There are zero publicly operated cooling centers in the city, which is located in Jefferson County, the nation’s ninth-most climate-vulnerable county, according to the data tool.
With these data points in one location, researchers hope to make it easier for residents to push for change.
The tool, released Monday, adds to a trove of evidence showing that Black communities are disproportionately at risk for the effects of climate change because of “decades of inequitable development and systemic disinvestment” in America’s communities of color, researchers wrote.
Roughly 30% of the residents in the 10 counties with the nation’s worst climate risks are Black, but less than 12% of the country is Black. The nation’s most at-risk county, St. John the Baptist, is located along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, and is 60% Black.
This year, Capital B has reported on St. John the Baptist and three other of the top 10 counties, who’ve all struggled to access clean drinking water and recover from COVID-19 and hurricanes, and have been decimated by industrial expansion and pollution.
- Dirty Water, Distrust, and a Crisis
- Louisiana’s Hurricane Victims Wonder if They’ll Ever Recover
- What Happens When a Black Enclave Is Built by Big Oil
While the federal government has two similar climate risk tools — one designed by the Environmental Protection Agency and another by the White House Council on Environmental Quality — the new map is the nation’s most comprehensive.
This tool combines 184 data sets to rank the risks of more than 70,000 U.S. census tracts. The EPA’s tool, for example, is based on 20 indicators.
The new tool measures such things as the annual number of people who die from air pollution caused by the industrial sources intensifying severe weather; who has the financial resources, such as personal vehicles, to flee disasters; and who has health insurance and lives close enough to travel to a hospital during times of need.
The map allows you to search by location, viewing the overall climate vulnerability in your community and the conditions that are causing it. You can plug in your address here. There are tutorials on how to use the tool here.
The nation’s most climate-vulnerable county?
The threats in St. John the Baptist have been dictating life for years.
“We feel the danger that we’re in in this community; we see what’s happening with the weather, we’re seeing stronger storms,” said Jo Banner, a St. John the Baptist resident, “and we know that our community is not prepared at all for emergencies, the federal government is not prepared, the local parish is not prepared.”
Two years removed from Hurricane Ida, blue tarps cover damaged roofs as car-sized gaping holes proliferate in mobile homes across the region. This August, the county’s hottest-recorded month ever, also saw the area’s hottest recorded daily temperature — and a days-long fire at one of the county’s oil refineries. The merging of extreme heat and air pollution created a health crisis just two months after the EPA dropped two civil rights complaints brought by county residents.
“It just takes the strike of a match in Louisiana and in St. John Parish, and it will all explode. I feel that this year, more than ever, we could all go up through some catastrophe,” said Banner, a community activist and historian.
“And the sad part is that the government is not listening. We are begging the world to take notice.”
Researchers hope the tool will put those who have ignored the growing climate threats on notice. They want policymakers, community organizers, and residents to use the tool to hold those driving the crisis accountable and more likely to take action. Ultimately, the groups also hope it will spur legislative action and be utilized to guide federal spending through the Inflation Reduction Act, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Justice40 Initiative.
But as Banner pointed out, the data just corroborates the lived experiences that residents have been sharing with politicians for decades.
“Many times, though,” she said, “when we have these conversations, [policymakers] already know how bad climate change is in my area. The problem is that they won’t use their authority to act; they just choose not to do it because of wanting to make the corporations and the businesses happy.”