The Climate Gap: Inequalities in How Climate Change Hurts Americans and How to Close the Gap

This assessment and policy report argues that climate change has important justice and human right implications because poor neighborhoods and people of color will suffer more than other segments of the population, creating what they call “the climate gap”. Using data from California, the authors write about how vulnerable populations will be adversely affected by climate change, exacerbating current inequities. While the report includes policy recommendations for the whole nation, it is a reaction to public health, equity, and regulatory issues pertinent to The Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) in California that was implemented to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

Make the argument that climate change will disproportionately impact frontline communities. 

Specifically, the authors find that the climate gap will lead to the following disparate impacts:

  • Extreme heat will lead to increased illnesses and deaths, particularly among the elderly, infants, and those who work outdoors. The risks of heat related illnesses will be higher in low-income neighborhoods and among people of color. For example, they estimate that African Americans will be nearly twice as likely to die from a heat wave in Los Angeles, partially due to lack of access to air conditioning and transit;
  • Climate change will exacerbate air quality issues and smog. People of color and the poor are likely to be impacted because of lower rates of health insurance;
  • Climate change may increase the cost of basic necessities, which will be more burdensome for lower-income families;
  • Job opportunities in sectors that traditionally employ low-income workers and people of color, such as agriculture and tourism, are likely to undergo shifts or declines in workforce; and
  • Extreme weather will have a disproportionate impact on low-income people due to lower rates of homeowners insurance, fewer personal resources and savings, and disproportionate suffering from prior stress. Extreme weather is particularly threatening for the homeless.

Given these dangers, the authors call for federal and state policy makers to close the climate gap, suggesting the following tactics:

  • Auction permits (under cap-and-trade auctions regulating greenhouse gas emissions) or establish fees that can be invested in communities that will be hardest hit;
  • Maximize reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and pollution in areas that have the dirtiest air. Measure the effectiveness of mitigation strategies based on their impact on vulnerable populations;
  • Focus planning and interventions in poor and minority neighborhoods; and
  • Use mapping technology to identify vulnerable neighborhoods.

Moreover, the authors argue that the impact of climate change on low-income populations and people of color must be elevated in policy conversations. Social justice concerns should directly influence climate change decisions. 


This research was supported by The Annenberg Foundation, The Energy Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.



Publication Date: July 2009

Authors or Affiliated Users:

  • Rachel Morello-Frosh
  • Manuel Pastor
  • James Sadd
  • Seth B. Shonkoff


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Assessment
  • Policy analysis/recommendations

States Affected:


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