July 4, 2023, was the hottest recorded day on Earth. I just happened to be in Phoenix, Arizona, attending a baseball tournament for my son where the daily temperature reached 115 degrees. It was the hottest I have ever been, and I was just standing in the shade watching him play baseball. To prepare for a tournament under these conditions I rented a shade tent and cooler, purchased fans and misters, packed cooling towels and sun hats, and ensured all of us were well hydrated and lathered in sunscreen.
But as we spent the week in Phoenix I became painfully aware that not everyone had access to the same essential comforts as my family. Cooling shelters were reportedly full and had to turn individuals away. We saw unhoused people huddling under freeways during the height of daytime temperatures. Local news stations were encouraging residents without access to reliable air conditioning to seek daytime shelter in other locations.
Our short time dealing with the heat in Phoenix is a very small example of how climate change is affecting the world in different ways. My family was able to access everything we needed to be safe, comfortable and healthy while others suffered under the same conditions. We weren’t more worthy; we simply had the means to control the situation we were in.
In 2021 the Environmental Protection Agency released a report showing that “the most severe harms from climate change fall disproportionately upon underserved communities who are least able to prepare for, and recover from, heat waves, poor air quality, flooding, and other impacts.” Socially vulnerable populations are the most affected while simultaneously having the fewest resources to combat the effects of climate change such as extreme heat.
Climate change and climate disasters can take many forms. The Pacific Northwest has battled wildfires, flooding, mudslides and prolonged drought in recent years. These are all linked to climate change, and they all disproportionately affect marginalized groups and the socially vulnerable.
As wildfires fill our late summer skies with smoke, and the air quality index steadily rises, we’re all encouraged to stay indoors. Most of us can follow those guidelines, patiently wait for the skies to clear, and then go on with our daily lives. But it isn’t so simple for many others. Researchers at the University of Washington and The Nature Conservancy have found that 12 million people in the United States are considered socially vulnerable to wildfires and a single extreme fire event would be devastating to their existence.
Specifically, “In the case of Native Americans, historically forced relocation onto reservations — mostly rural, remote areas that are more prone to wildfires — combined with greater levels of vulnerability due to socioeconomic barriers make it especially hard for these communities to recover after a large wildfire.” Do I deserve to recover from a potential wildfire quicker than those in marginalized groups that are disproportionally affected by the threat? Or do I simply have access to more resources and live in a lower-risk area?
As climate change continues to impact our lives it will require all of us to advocate for marginalized groups in ways that boost equity and bring light to gaps in resources. No one deserves to suffer, regardless of their place or position in the world.
Meredith Browand is a mother and activist who lives in Purdy.
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