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Social Disparity in Impacts of Climate Disasters in the United States


With the planet's changing climate comes an ever more extreme, frequent and unpredictable landscape of climate disasters. As of September, there have been 23 confirmed climate disaster events in 2023 each with over $1 billion loss in the United States, compared to the annual average of 18 events over the past 5 years (2018-2022) [1]. While these climate disasters impact every population group in the U.S., not everyone will be affected equally. A plethora of studies show that marginalized populations, including female-headed households, racial/ethnic minorities and Indigenous Peoples, and children are more vulnerable to and disproportionately suffer the impacts of climate change [2]. Climate disasters are particularly revealing of how climate change impacts and social injustice are tightly intertwined, as differences in factors from geographical location to access to resources between population groups become magnified in the unevenly distributed outcomes. As BBC News notes in a succinct example of social issues compounded by climate disasters, “When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, it was the city's black neighbourhoods that bore the brunt of the storm. Twelve years later, it was the black districts of Houston that took the full force of Hurricane Harvey” [3].

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(Image Credit: EPA)

This project applies a data-driven approach to investigate disparities in the impacts of climate disasters across across demographics such as race and income level in the United States. In particular, this work aims to draw insights about who has been most impacted by extreme weather events over the past 20 years and to quantify these impacts across measures such as displacement from home and income 1 year after the event. These models, along with geospatial data on future predicted risk of climate disasters will be used to predict the future impacts of these events across different population groups, with the goal of informing more effective decision making and distribution of resources in the face of this growing crisis. While there have been studies on the social vulnerability and climate change, including a recent 2021 United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study on the degree to which four socially vulnerable populations may be more exposed to the highest impacts of climate change [4], there is limited work on the social impact of climate disasters specifically which integrates data from actual individual climate events. This work aims to bridge that gap and answer the following questions:

  1. How has the frequency and total cost of major climate disasters changed over the past 20 years?

  2. In counties/states affected by major climate disasters over the past 20 years, what are the impacts to employment rate/income 1 year after?

  3. Which groups are most affected by impacts to employment rate/income, including demographics such as race, income-level, and education-level?

  4. In counties/states affected by major climate disasters, what are the impacts to displacement from home 1 year after?

  5. Which groups are most affected by impacts to employment rate/income and housing, including demographics such as race, income-level, and education-level?

  6. What does the social disparity in impact look like across different climate disasters, such as hurricanes, severe storms/floods, and wildfires?

  7. Using existing predicted climate disaster risk data, what are the future impacts of climate disasters across different demographics?

  8. Which groups will be most affected by climate disasters 5-10 years in the future? How much more will they be affected than other populations? Where do these groups live?

  9. What are the most commonly reported issues and solutions for social disparity with climate disasters?

  10. How can these insights inform decision making in the face of future climate disasters?

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