Social Impacts

Photo Credit: FEMA

by Arthur Mead, Jr.

Ticks Graphic

Tick...Tick...Tick - Over time, many more ticks and other annoying
insects, and reduced amounts of clean air will make outdoor
recreation a good deal less fun.

Climate Change Is Not a Fair Fight

Like many battles, the one of taking on climate change isn’t really a fair fight.

The various impacts that society will face as a result of global warming and changed conditions will strike hardest at the poorest, weakest and those with the fewest options. But no one is really off the hook.

The heat waves and massive storms in the U.S. during the last few years didn’t destroy Malibu or Wall Street. They hit America’s heartland and small communities of farmers, Play Video Devastation in Long Beach, NY After Hurricane Sandy Devastation in Long Beach, NY after Superstorm Sandy grocers and barbers with the striped pole out front — all those Norman Rockwell-ready residents. Rhode Island’s Great Flood of 2010 didn’t knock out universities and the state’s wealthiest towns. The disaster primarily struck the state’s biggest (but not most high-end) shopping mall and commercial strip, its middle class bedroom communities, and rural South County, home of the state’s revered “Swamp Yankees.” But Superstorm Sandy has shown us just how Manhattan — what some would call the greatest city in the world — can be laid waste by one storm, and how the wealthy to the poor from Long Island to Staten Island can be devastated as beloved and iconic communities are flattened by winds and storm surge.

How Everyone is Affected
Health Impacts
Impacts on Recreation and Tourism
Marine Transportation Impacts

If It Wasn’t for Bad Luck, I Wouldn’t Have No Luck At All

Zoning, planning, development site location, and environmental and human health are all issues brought into play by climate change. As we consider solutions, social equity shouldn’t be ignored.

Over two-thirds of the world’s population now lives in coastal areas highly susceptible to climate change. Those who daily face the challenges of poverty inhabit much of the coastal community. The challenge of meeting basic human needs is exacerbated by the impacts of storms, floods and the inexorable march of sea level rise.

While some people with high-end waterfront homes or businesses have the ability, through wealth or access, to be able to recover and rebuild after a hurricane or other natural disaster, many are left to face a nearly impossible task. A fishing family living in a shack next to the coast may have no means to retrieve Global climate change has a disproportionate impact on communities of color in the United States and around the world.
-NAACP Climate Justice Initiative
what was lost. Islanders facing sea level rise may have no place to which to retreat. Poisoned water supplies may force people not just to buy bottled water as a substitute, but go without or risk their health by consuming contaminated water or walking miles to ferry clean water back on their backs. Communities that have no recourse to oppose governmental decisions to site industries, such as coal-powered plants that bring pollutants into an area’s water or land, suffer directly from environmental degradation.

There are further nuances, such as race, that also factor into decisions that lay open those at the bottom end of the social and financial ladder to severe climate change impacts. As the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative states:

It’s about the fact that race — over class — is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in this country. Climate change is about the fact that in our communities it is far easier to find a bag of Cheetos than a carton of strawberries.

Climate Change is about us.

But social equity regarding climate change is about more than race. It is indeed a class issue. A school in Lower 9th Ward two years post-Katrina
Photo Credit: J. Swift
How many people who do artisanal fishing or scrub farming to feed their families have formal insurance against disasters like hurricane or droughts? Or the funds to replace a lost boat or a season’s crops?

As measures are taken to combat the threats that climate change brings, decisions being made at higher and official levels must take into account social equity dimensions. Future problems in this area will not be one of a lack of knowledge — there is plenty of that about future risks — but rather a lack of will.

"There are no winners and losers, we all either win or lose in the future we make for ourselves." - UN’s climate chief, Christiana Figueres, following Typhoon Haiyan

We stand warned by serious and credible scientists across the world that time is short and the dangers are great. The most relevant question now is whether our own government is equal to the challenge…In the years ahead, we are likely to see reduced water supplies…more forest fires than in previous decades…changes in crop production…more heat waves affecting our cities and greater intensity in storms. Each one of these consequences of climate change will require policies to protect our citizens, especially those most vulnerable to violent weather.”

– U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ)



Climate change threatens human health and well being in many ways, including impacts from increased extreme weather events, wildfires, decreased air quality, threats to mental health, and illnesses transmitted by food, water, and disease carriers such as mosquitoes and ticks. Some of these health impacts are already underway in the United States.

Public health actions, especially preparedness and prevention, can do much to protect people from some of the impacts of climate change. Early action provides the largest health benefits. As threats increase, our ability to adapt to future changes may be limited.

Critical infrastructure including roads, bridges, wastewater treatment facilities, and power stations will become more vulnerable to damage due to sea level rise, higher storm surges, heavy downpours leading to inland flooding, and extreme heat events.

Climate change will affect certain social groups more than others, particularly groups living in highly vulnerable areas, the poor, young, old, and sick. The impacts of climate change on different socio-economic communities must be taken into consideration during the adaptation planning process.

A warmer climate is projected to increase the risks of heat-related illnesses and deaths and lead to worsening air quality. The increasing frequency and strength of extreme events, such as floods, droughts, and storms, threaten human health and safety.

Tell Us What You Think

Additional Resources

About the RI
Climate Change Collaborative

We hope you will find the information in the topic areas informational and instructive. We also welcome your feedback, which can be sent to the Climate Change Collaborative through the Tell Us What You Think page.

Positions expressed in referenced media or links to external websites do not necessarily reflect the position of the RI Climate Change Collaborative.

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