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Social Cohesion: The Secret Weapon in the Fight for Equitable Climate Resilience

In July 1995, Chicago experienced the deadliest weather event in the city’s history: a sustained heat wave that included a heat index—a measure of the heat experienced by a typical individual—of 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The extreme weather of that summer 20 years ago led to at least 465 heat-related deaths over a roughly two-week period. While all Chicagoans felt the heat, they did not suffer equally. The parts of the Windy City with higher concentrations of low-income people, elderly people, and African Americans experienced some of the highest heat-related death rates. Pinpointing the locations of these deaths revealed a map of climate vulnerability that spoke to stark racial divisions and inequality within Chicago.

Weather is often referred to as “the great equalizer,” but as Chicago’s experience shows, extreme weather such as flooding, storms, unusually cold spells, and heat waves disproportionately affect low-income communities. There are several explanations for this disparity. Low-income housing—which is typically older and of poor quality—tends to provide less protection from extreme weather. After destructive weather events, people in low-income communities are not able to recover as quickly or completely as individuals who live in more financially secure communities. Moreover, people who choose to leave or are forced to move from a climate-affected area become “climate displaced,” which results in disruptions to their lives and a potential burden to host communities.

Since the Chicago heat wave of 1995, the world’s changing climate has contributed to an increase in the strength and frequency of extreme weather events, with the resulting fallout more likely to be acutely felt by low-income households. In order to curb climate change, a number of cities are testing strategies to cut carbon pollution, such as expanding public transportation, improving energy efficiency, and increasing access to renewable energy. These strategies also have the added benefit of improving public health, particularly in low-income areas where rates of asthma and other environment-related illness are high. Climate change adaptation efforts that are currently underway to fight coastal flooding, reduce excessive heat in urban areas, and limit drought effects—such as planting trees, restoring natural areas, and improving water-use efficiency—can help residents of all income levels.

For the complete article, please see Center for American Progress.