Social Determinants of Health

Ripple effects of global warming and climate change on American public health disparities

Climate change is one of humanity’s most pressing obstacles this century. With longer summers and shortening coastlines, environmental changes are well-documented by scientists. However, environmental alterations are bound to have a myriad of ripple effects on our society, which—while often less understood—may be equally as devastating. In this article, we’ll investigate how some of these ripples affect public health in America.

Climate change is intensifying. As carbon dioxide is deposited into the atmosphere, global warming dries and heats regions that are already parched, leading to blistering temperatures. Over the past few weeks, temperatures in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada have surpassed 110 degrees, causing some to get third-degree burns from simply touching asphalt. Temperatures this high in just early summer underscore the direness of this situation; Daniel Swain, a scientist at UCLA remarks, “We’re still a long way out from the peak…of the dry season.”

Droughts and Water Access Disparities

The secondary- and tertiary-level effects of global warming experienced most drastically in inland and arid regions, such as the American West. Lake Mead, a water reservoir housing nearly eight cubic miles of water in Nevada and Arizona, has been the largest reservoir in the United States. However, it is currently experiencing a devastating water shortage due to the combination of high rates of evaporation, low rainfall, and high water absorbance from surrounding dry land. Levels have returned to their lowest since the 1930s. 

As a result, rural farmers in the West have much less water to tend to their crops; many are being forced to make difficult decisions in allocating water to crops and livestock. These agricultural shortages are sure to cause price increases in food around the country—perhaps especially so for healthy and unprocessed foods, whose supply chains are shorter and are thus more immediately impacted than processed foods. In an economy where highly-processed non-nutritious food is much cheaper than healthy and nutritious alternatives, the unfolding agricultural shortages may accentuate these price disparities, placing healthy options further out of reach of low-income families. 

In other areas of the country, drought may affect citizens’ direct access to water. Indigenous reservations such as Pine Ridge in South Dakota already suffer from water shortages, even having to use wells to extract the precious fluid from reservoirs one hundred feet underground. If conditions in South Dakota worsen like they have further West, it’s possible that water will be only available even further underground, imperiling those living there. As Indigenous peoples’ reservations are often located in rural and remote regions, the disconnection to infrastructure makes their access to water especially fragile.

Electricity Distribution to Low-Income Neighborhoods

Additionally, rising temperatures have pushed the limits of electricity infrastructure. In many states, systems of electricity distribution were built decades ago with hard cutoffs that are routinely tested come summertime. In Texas, greater temperatures than expected in June led the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to request Texans to minimize their electricity consumption, leading many to fear mass outages such as those of this February. California, too, is threatened by the prospect of being taken off the grid this summer thanks to rising temperatures.

The impacts of electricity shortages may not be felt equally across income brackets. In February’s winter storm causing power shortages, low-income neighborhoods were more likely than high-income ones to lose electricity (the shortage should have, in theory, not been skewed either way). It’s quite plausible—and empirically true—that future climate-induced shortages will disproportionately hurt low-income families. Because electricity is crucial to critical home services such as  water filtration and air conditioning, it’s critical to ensure equal access to it.

America’s current experiences with COVID-19 stands as a testament to the fact that large-scale crises can accentuate existing disparities between well-off and underprivileged communities. It’s possible that climate change will do the same, which underscores our societal need to reduce our collective environmental footprint.


Further Reading

Plumer, Brad, et al. “Climate Change Batters the West Before Summer Even Begins.” The New York Times, 17 June 2021. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/17/climate/wildfires-drought-climate-change-west-coast.html.

Sadeque, Samira. “Wealthy Neighborhoods in Texas Get Slammed for Having Electricity.” The Daily Dot, 17 Feb. 2021, https://www.dailydot.com/irl/wealthy-texas-neighborhoods-electricity/.

CNN, Rachel Ramirez, Pedram Javaheri and Drew Kann. “The Shocking Numbers behind the Lake Mead Drought Crisis.” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/17/us/lake-mead-drought-water-shortage-climate/index.html

Featured image by redcharlie on Unsplash.

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