An Environmental Justice Analysis of the Health Impacts of Climate Change

EPA Grant Number: FP917447
Title: An Environmental Justice Analysis of the Health Impacts of Climate Change
Investigators: Cushing, Lara J
Institution: University of California - Berkeley
EPA Project Officer: Lee, Sonja
Project Period: August 1, 2012 through July 31, 2015
Project Amount: $126,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2012) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Risk Assessment


Global climate change threatens human health around the world, but its impacts will not affect everyone equally. There is good reason to believe that, within the United States, health impacts associated with climate change will vary by race, ethnicity and class, both because low-income communities of color are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards and because they are more vulnerable to the impacts of those hazards. Studies of past heat waves have found that African Americans are at greater risk of heat-related deaths, with social isolation and access to airconditioning being important mediators. This dissertation research seeks to analyze the distribution of potential climate change health impacts in relation to race, ethnicity and class. Focusing on the state of Texas, this work will investigate the following research questions: (1) How can one best measure vulnerability to the health impacts of climate change? In particular, what do community-based participatory methods add to the scientific characterization of vulnerability? How do the results of “topdown,” indicator-based assessments compare to “bottom-up,” qualitative methods? (2) How are the health impacts of climate change likely to be distributed in space and in regards to race and class?


This work will apply a community-based participatory research approach and a cumulative impact framework at two geographic scales: the state and neighborhood levels. First, existing secondary data will be used to develop indices of vulnerability that combine information on exposure to climate change-related hazards, sensitivity to those hazards (including both biological and social factors), and adaptive capacity. These indices will enable a relative ranking of communities across the state of Texas in terms of their vulnerability to health impacts associated with climate change. Vulnerability indices for the multiple hazards associated with climate change—such as heat waves, sea level rise and wildfires—will be combined into a summary measure of cumulative impact, and compared to race/ethnicity and income data from the U.S. Census. Multivariate analyses will be used to determine whether there are statistically significant racial or ethnic disparities in vulnerability. This research also will engage community members from two communities that already are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation with the goal of better understanding local drivers of vulnerability and resilience to climate change. Through processes of participatory mapping, focus group discussions and thematic context analysis, community perceptions and knowledge regarding climate change vulnerability will be compared to the “top-down” assessment described above and used to improve it. This component of the research also seeks to identify actionable local or regional projects and programs to enhance adaptive capacity.

Expected Results:

This research will result in a state-wide mapping of communities vulnerable to climate change and an analysis of the potential for racial or ethnic disparities in the impacts of climate change within the United States. It will help to understand the environmental justice implications of climate change as well as whether and how climate change can be expected to deepen racial/ethnic health disparities in Texas.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection

In its 2009 review of risk assessment methods, the National Research Council called for the consideration of “nonchemical stressors, vulnerability and background risk factors” and emphasized the “need for simplified risk assessment tools [to] allow communities and stakeholders to conduct assessments and thus increase stakeholder participation.” This project contributes an innovative approach for one such methodology of collaborative cumulative impact assessment in regards to climate change. The results also can be used to help target climate adaptation programs and projects towards the communities that are likely to be affected the most.

Supplemental Keywords:

climate change, environmental justice, cumulative risk assessment

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2013
  • 2014
  • Final