Caring for Our People
Urban communities are particularly vulnerable to the threat of climate change since they lack the resources to adapt and protect themselves from extreme weather events like heat waves and hurricanes. These communities are often characterized by impervious surfaces which complicate flooding and contribute to hotter temperatures in the city. Providence is 37% impervious, making it more vulnerable than rural areas. Urban areas also have fewer trees, creating significant temperature differences between urban and rural areas. Trees and the Urban Heat Island Effect: A Case Study for Providence Rhode Island (PDF).
According to a report by the Environmental Council of Rhode Island, low-income communities and communities of color are often neglected in processes related to climate change adaptation and planning. This increases their vulnerability and limits their ability to be aware and respond effectively to environmental hazards.
Previous projects to address climate change have not prioritized or fully understood the needs of communities. In order to develop smart adaptation strategies current market incentives need to be corrected so that fossil fuels’ costs are borne more by emitters, rather than falling heavily on society and its most vulnerable populations. Environmental quality in low and moderate income neighborhoods must be improved by creating accessible jobs, by reducing energy costs borne by low and moderate income households, by achieving high levels of energy efficiency, and by promoting public health. There is a need to ensure that urban communities have infrastructure that keeps them safe through comprehensive hazard mitigation plans.
Providence Urban Tree Canopy from Providence’s Urban Forest Report, 2008
The homeless are particularly vulnerable to climate change given the high rates of poorly controlled chronic disease, smoking, respiratory conditions, and mental illness in the population. A large number of homeless individuals live in poverty, occupy areas vulnerable to environmental hazards, and have no or limited access to health care. Higher rates of hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes increase susceptibility to infectious disease. Furthermore, homeless individuals with respiratory and cardiovascular problems and high levels of exposure to outdoor air pollution are threatened by an increase in air pollutants as temperatures rise.
The homeless population is often characterized by low socioeconomic status, lack of shelter, social isolation, advanced age, and cognitive impairment, all risk factors for vulnerability to extreme heat. Around 91% of homeless individuals live in urban or suburban areas, where the heat island effect increases the mortality rate. In terms of exposure to infectious disease and vectors like mosquitoes, those who sleep outdoors are at an increased risk since mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus are more active at night. In addition, floods, increased precipitation, and hurricanes will disproportionately impact the homeless since they occupy marginal areas and are less likely to be able to evacuate. Unfortunately, they are not always considered in disaster planning, increasing their vulnerability to environmental changes.
There has been a collection of studies conducted by state agencies, research organizations, and local universities to assess Rhode Island’s vulnerability to climate change. Studies have shown the state’s climate is changing with warmer summers and earlier springs. While there have been different assessments of vulnerability to heat, flooding, and sea level rise among other impacts, there is a need to conduct a comprehensive, up to date assessment of the different vulnerabilities across the state. Only then will agencies have enough information to fully implement climate change adaptation programs.
Map courtesy of Natural Resources Defense Council
Map courtesy of Natural Resources Defense Council
Source: Rhode Island Department of Health
The Rhode Island Climate Change Commission reported that sea-level rise, storm surges, droughts, and inland flooding will impact drinking water sources in the state as well as surface water and groundwater quality. In addition, climate change threatens to worsen air quality in Rhode Island.
The Natural Resource Defense Council found that Rhode Island is vulnerable since all 5 counties have ragweed pollution, and Washington, Providence, and Kent counties already suffer from unhealthy smog levels. Higher temperatures will increase pollen production and ground level ozone, making it harder to breath and triggering health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion.
Increased temperatures, later frosts, and weaker winter freezes will extend the season and geographic range of disease vectors such as ticks and mosquitoes, leading to an increase in the number of cases of Equine Encephalitis, West Nile Virus, and Lyme disease. Rhode Island will have to develop a public health plan to prepare and mitigate the spread of vectors and other threats to public health.
Rhode Island is just beginning to feel the impacts of a shifting local climate. Increases in air temperature, changing precipitation, and stronger storms are expected. Extreme weather has already caused severe damage to the state. Since 1938, hurricanes have caused an average of more than $50 million in losses per year. The number of National Flood Insurance Program policies across Rhode Island already account for $3.5 billion in overall insured properly. Ineffective emergency management and more intense hurricanes threaten Rhode Island with widespread property damage, rising insurance premiums, and the loss of life.
Currently the Coastal Resource Management Council lacks high quality elevation data to do planning scenarios to look at inundation, erosion acceleration, and barrier modification. The lack of attention and funding ultimately limits how prepared and resilient Rhode Island’s coastlines can be.
In 2010, adults aged 65 and older made about 14% of Rhode Island population. Projections predict this number will increase to almost 25% in 2040. The elderly will be challenged by hot temperatures and extreme weather events. While climate change will affect the general population, the elderly are expected to be more vulnerable. With age, sweat glands produce less sweat which make it harder to keep cool. This increases the likelihood an individual will become overheated or develop a heat stroke.
The EPA reports that a large number of older Americans are expected to live in areas more affected by climate change like coastal zones and large metropolitan areas. The elderly have a higher prevalence for medical conditions and functional limitations, putting them at a higher risk. Warmer summers, heat waves, and air pollution will affect older adults who already suffer from respiratory and cardiovascular problems.
Socioeconomic characteristics are predicted to increase the vulnerability of the elderly. Those living in poverty or fixed incomes may lack resources to pay for air conditioning during heat waves or access to transportation to evacuate when extreme weather events hit an area.
Community participation is critical in ensuring that disaster management is an effective process within the community. A study on reducing risk from natural hazards in Central Falls states that community engagement can educate and raise awareness, energize social trust between authorities and communities, and coordinate the respective response and recovery roles of government, business, civic groups, and individuals. Benefits of effective community participation include greater ability to govern and maintain trust during a crisis, more citizens responders to ease burdens on health and safety agencies, fiscal savings through reduced disease-related losses and expenditures, and emergency plans that are feasible and reflect community values, economic realities, and collective judgment.