Adriana Garcia, MPH candidate in Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health (Climate and Health Certificate). Photo courtesy of Adriana Garcia.

Adriana Garcia, MPH candidate in Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health (Climate and Health Certificate). Photo courtesy of Adriana Garcia.

APHA has declared 2017 the Year of Climate Change and Health, a yearlong initiative to raise awareness of the health impacts of climate change and to mobilize action. In a post highlighting February’s theme of climate justice, Adriana Garcia, MPH candidate in Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health (Climate and Health Certificate), and David Chang, environmental health coordinator at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, discuss the connections between climate justice and health in Northern Manhattan.

David Chang, environmental health coordinator at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Photo courtesy of David Chang.

David Chang, environmental health coordinator at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Photo courtesy of David Chang.

In New York City, climate change will harm millions of individuals. It is often noted that the people who are the least responsible for climate change and who are the most vulnerable members of society are the ones most harmed by the consequences of climate change; this is better known as climate injustice. Northern Manhattan, for example, has fallen victim to countless environmental justice problems throughout the years and now it also faces climate justice obstacles. Two of the largest known effects of climate change that will impact Northern Manhattan are extreme heat events and flooding.

Extreme heat events kill more people every year in the U.S. than all other extreme weather events combined, including floods, tornadoes, winter storms, droughts and lightning. Extreme heat can cause dehydration, heat stress and heat exhaustion, as well as more life-threatening conditions such as heatstroke. People with preexisting conditions are more susceptible to the threats of extreme heat events, including those with heart disease, diabetes, asthma and COPD. Cities already experience higher temperatures than non-urban areas. This is due to the urban heat island effect, which is when buildings absorb heat during the day and emit heat at night. This effect will only increase with increasing extreme heat events.

The effects of extreme heat events are environmental justice issues. Northern Manhattan residents without air conditioning and those who work outside will face the greatest burden of health effects due to these heat events. Specifically, Harlem residents are twice as likely to visit the emergency room for heat stress compared to the rest of New York. Over 50 percent of people in Northern Manhattan say they’ve experienced dizziness, nausea and other impacts of overheating. In order to combat the effects of increasing temperatures, urban designs and infrastructure need to be improved. While some may require a great amount of time and resources, others can be implemented more quickly at the local level, such as painting roofs white or increasing vegetation.

Northern Manhattan will also be affected by flood events, which can cause several impacts on health. Flooding can exacerbate indoor air quality conditions by encouraging the growth of mold, which in turn leads to various respiratory problems. The increase in flood events will likely increase the contamination of water, which could strain the existing water treatment facilities and result in an increase in water-related illnesses. This hits particularly close to home as Northern Manhattan houses the North River Wastewater Treatment Facility; located at 145th Street and the West Side Highway and treating 125 million gallons of wastewater each day, this plant could be impacted and put the surrounding community at risk. In order to protect vulnerable communities from the effects of flood events, affordable housing in flood-prone areas in Northern Manhattan needs infrastructure improvements. Additionally, new natural buffers, floodwalls, bioswales and green roofs can absorb stormwater.

WE ACT for Environmental Justice has prioritized climate change as a top issue to address in the years to come. Our mission is to build healthy communities by ensuring that people of color and/or low income participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies. We’re working to combat climate change at the local, state and federal level. At the local level, WE ACT has worked alongside Northern Manhattan community members to develop the Northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan. Embedded in the plan are community-driven strategies to achieve energy democracy, build social resilience, prepare for climate related emergencies and increase participation in governance. The plan calls for building green infrastructure to address flooding, as well as identifying cooling centers for residents to shelter in during the events of extreme heat. At the state level, WE ACT continues to engage elected officials on opportunities to finance alternative energy sources: through a coalition called NY Renews, WE ACT has supported rallies in Albany to ask lawmakers to incorporate the Climate and Community Protection Act into the environmental budget. The bill would help eliminate carbon pollution in New York state by 2050 and protect New York’s most vulnerable.

At the national level, WE ACT continues to collaborate and bring together various environmental justice organizations working on climate justice through the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change. The forum developed principles of climate justice that should be used as a guide to develop policies combating climate change. The principles include establishing a zero carbon economy, protecting all of America’s people, positioning the public sector to be a catalyst for change and ensuring the inclusion of and support for people-of-color, indigenous peoples and low-income communities. This year, the forum has put together a series of webinars on climate change, which we invite you to partake in.

As the fight continues, we ask that you join or support us by visiting our climate page. For more information on all of WE ACT’s campaigns and initiatives, visit our website website or contact us via email.