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Farmworkers work to break up earth on July 1, 2021, near St. Paul, Ore., as a heat wave bakes the Pacific Northwest in record-high temperatures.
Nathan Howard/AP
NewsDefend the Planet

5 Ways Extreme Heat Fuels Inequality

The heat waves smoldering over western North America would not be possible without the greenhouse gases that have been released into the atmosphere by human activities, according to an analysis by the World Weather Attribution.

Scientists recently measured 419 carbon dioxide particles per million in the atmosphere, the highest ratio in millions of years. Since carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for decades and even centuries, today’s heat waves will only get hotter in the years ahead unless countries stop burning fossil fuels.

The starkness of this new normal is unmistakable: temperatures reaching 20 degrees above normal, up to a billion mussels cooked alive in their shells, critical infrastructure melting and buckling under extreme stress.

Climate change manifests in various ways but it primarily affects the people least responsible for it. As more extreme heat arrives this summer, it’s important to remember the unequal impacts of climate change and prioritize climate justice

Here are five ways the ongoing heat wave has exposed and even worsened inequalities.


1. People without air conditioning were more likely to die from extreme heat. 

More than 100 people died in Oregon due to heat-related complications in recent weeks, and the majority of them lacked air conditioning. While the financial situation of those who died is unclear, it’s true that many households simply cannot afford the high upfront costs of an air conditioner, along with its monthly energy costs. 

In most of the world, air conditioning is out of reach for people living in poverty and the effects of heat waves — from heat exhaustion to dehydration to heart attacks — become more likely as a result. 

2. The rise in air conditioner use fuels climate change.

The global rise of air conditioning disastrously fuels climate change. The cold air released into people’s homes requires a lot of energy from power grids that rely on fossil fuels, which releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Air conditioners, along with refrigerators, often use hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) to treat hot air, and HFCs are a greenhouse gas that absorbs heat several thousands times more effectively than CO2

As the world gets hotter and people are turning to air conditioners to stay safe, the planet will just keep on getting hotter, unless countries rapidly phase out fossil fuels, while also investing in cooling systems that use alternatives to HFCs.

For people living in poverty, this means more exposure to dangerous living conditions and higher energy costs.

3. Electricity blackouts primarily affect those in poverty.

While power grids in areas affected by the recent heat wave largely withstood the subsequent increase in energy use, analysts have noted that when blackouts happen, they disproportionately affect low-income people. For many wealthy households, the effects of a blackout can be averted by switching on the generator. For people who can’t afford an expensive generator, loss of power can prevent them from cooling down: suddenly, A.C.s can’t run, fans can’t blow, and ice can’t be frozen.

Globally, up to 1.2 billion people still lack regular access to electricity, a situation that leaves them especially vulnerable to rising temperatures.  

4. Heat waves severely impact outdoor laborers. 

Sebastian Francisco Perez, a 38-year-old farm worker in Oregon, died in June from prolonged exposure to extreme heat. His death revealed the extreme working conditions that outdoor laborers are subjected to during heat waves. All around the world, construction workers, farm laborers, and people in other outdoor professions are forced to continue their jobs often with little protective measures — such as increased access to water and more rest time — put in place. 

Between 1992 and 2017, at least 815 outdoor laborers died from heat stress in the US, and 70,000 more were injured. Climate scientists warn that health complications and mortality rates will rise in the years ahead for people who have to earn their income while toiling outside.

5. These heat waves will look ordinary in hindsight. 

The past decade was the hottest on record. The next five years will likely feature even hotter temperatures. The five beyond that, well you get the picture. The climate scientist Peter Kalmus argued in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that it’s almost pointless to keep track of heat records that are being broken on a near annual basis. Instead, all attention should be focused on eliminating fossil fuels.    

“[Heat waves] are becoming more intense, lasting longer, affecting larger areas and hitting earlier in the season,” he wrote. “One recent study projects that if humanity fails to rapidly transition from fossil fuels, a wide swath of the tropics will experience deadly heat conditions nearly every day of the year by the end of the century. In this scenario, hundreds of millions of people, perhaps billions, could be forced to choose between death and migration.”


The climate crisis is fundamentally about inequality — wealthy people can elude the consequences of climate change, swathed as they are in air conditioning, armed with the ability to up-and-go to a new part of the world at a moment’s notice, while the majority of the human population struggles under deteriorating conditions.  

These disparities encompass the entire planet, since animals and plants that have played no role in the climate crisis are being wiped out. Many climate impacts are already locked in for thousands of years, but worsening impacts can be avoided with urgent action. 

Climate activists and scientists have argued that the status quo of unbounded resource extraction, pollution, and economic growth has to be overhauled as soon as possible. This means ending all fossil fuel projects, providing unlimited funding for a green new deal on a global scale, allowing the Earth to heal, and championing adequate climate justice programs. 

The heat waves devastating communities worldwide can’t be stopped, the sun can’t be unplugged, the weather can’t be controlled. But it’s entirely possible to change how we take care of each other and how we live with and on the planet.