House in Tucson after a monsoon rain
Institute of the Environment 2017

Minding the Climate Gap

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

By Paulina Jenney, Institute of the Environment

When UA geographer Margaret Wilder began researching the effects of climate change on minorities and people of low socioeconomic status several years ago, she found little data for her local community.

Knowing that southern Arizona and New Mexico have both an increasingly hot climate and high levels of poverty, Wilder wants to raise awareness about the unequal impacts of climate change on low-income populations, a concept known as the climate gap, so that social service providers, climate scientists, and others are better equipped to help vulnerable populations in the future.

“Our initial interest was in exploring the relationship between climate and poverty in the Southwest U.S.,” said Wilder, an investigator with the Climate Assessment for the Southwest program (CLIMAS), which is based in IE and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We wanted to step back from a lot of the research that has been focused on this issue in the developing world, and say, ‘No, this also an issue in advanced industrialized countries.’”

Although the southwestern U.S. is considered one of the most linguistically rich regions in the country, language barriers, immigration status, lack of insurance, and age can make it difficult to access certain resources such as medical care in times of disaster. In addition, the residents of Arizona and New Mexico rank below average nationally across a range of indicators, including health, food, and access to energy. Wilder said these vulnerabilities can create a cascading effect on communities in the face of climate change.

Ethnicity in itself is not a risk factor for climate, Wilder said. Rather, in the Southwest, a large demographic of Hispanics and Native Americans live at or below the poverty level, and it is the lack of financial resources and inadequate physical infrastructure such as parks and green spaces in some neighborhoods that can place minority communities at higher risk.

On the other hand, some ethnic groups may have higher intrinsic levels of coping abilities—referred to as adaptive capacity—due to their tighter social networks, relative to the Southwest population as a whole. For example, extended families and multiple generations may live closer together and provide a safety net for elderly family members during a heat wave or flood.

“I think there’s an idea that climate affects all of us equally, because we’re all living in the same extremely hot climate,” said Wilder, an associate professor of geography and Latin American studies. “But if you’re already concerned about how you’re going to pay your energy bill, you can’t just turn up the A/C if it gets hotter.”

Wilder points out that people in low-income populations often have to make financial trade-offs to balance multiple needs. A family might have to make the choice between buying healthy food and getting access to proper medical care, or paying their summer electric bill.

The impacts of urban heat also force people to stay inside, which can compound health problems in already vulnerable populations. For those without reliable transportation, for example, extreme heat can impede access to proper nutrition, exercise, and even work.

Wilder’s research team, which also includes IE Co-director Diana Liverman, UA assistant professor Tracey Osborne, and UA graduate student Laurel Bellante, held a stakeholder workshop and conducted interviews with various social service and environmental organizations to determine how low-income people experience the climate and assess the area’s ability to mitigate the impacts of climate change on low-income populations. 

“What we found is that there’s already a huge amount of mobilization going on,” Wilder said. “A lot of organizations that work with low-income communities are already involved with tree-plantings, park accessibility, creating green space for getting outside when it’s hot. Although climate is probably not at the top of the list of vulnerabilities, it’s being increasingly recognized by social service providers.”

Wilder suggests that this research might be of greatest importance for climate researchers, who will need to include these social service organizations and government agencies among their affected stakeholders in future climate conversations.

“CLIMAS research around climate and poverty in the Southwest supports the growing environmental justice or resiliency movement taking shape in our region, linking efforts as diverse as poverty reduction, youth development, reentry programming, and water and food security, among others,” said Madeline Kiser, a community activist in several sustainable development organizations. 

“So much of this work, at this point in time, is about creating parity: developing equal partnerships among people from very diverse backgrounds, forming a common language,” Kiser added. “Through its research, CLIMAS has helped draw the academy closer to community initiatives and members, an exercise, above all, in quietly listening and affirming.”