A Black and white photo of a Black man looking away from the camera with sweat streaming down his face.
Image credit: Max Winkler on Unsplash

“When people die of heat, they are actually dying of poverty,” the New York Times wrote in 2023 about a devastating heat wave during which 10 people died in Texas. According to the New York Times (and many others), it was the hottest year on record.

In the first few weeks of 2024, the United States faced record, deadly low temperatures from the Northwest to the East Coast. At least five people died, with the deaths resulting from hypothermia and injuries due to trees felled by storms, respectively.

Every year, the first cold night of winter claims at least one life in Appalachia as families struggle to heat their homes, plugging in often faulty space heaters or igniting uncleaned fireplaces for the first time of the season. In England in December of 2022 alone, over a thousand people died due to living in freezing, damp homes.

Air conditioning is an issue of justice, with a disparity seen worldwide.

The climate crisis, which causes more severe storms, is being exacerbated by a fuel crisis in the UK where some people, particularly the elderly, cannot afford the high price of heating fuel. But around the world, the climate emergency underscores the ongoing emergency of poverty. Incomes can’t keep pace with heating, cooling, or housing costs. Families don’t have enough warm food to eat; enough clean, cool water to drink; or enough safe places to go to escape extreme temperatures.

As the world becomes hotter in the summer and winter storms become more intense and unpredictable, how can communities protect their most vulnerable members?

Disparity in Access

In the face of rising world temperatures, older people, migrants, disabled people, and people of color are more likely to lack access to home air conditioning. According to the AP, about one in 10 American households are without it, noting that “less than 4% of Detroit’s white households don’t have air conditioning.” For that city’s Black households? The rate climbs to 15 percent.

Air conditioning is an issue of justice, with a disparity seen worldwide. According to the AP, based on research from the University of San Diego, in more than 70 percent of countries, “the poorest areas and those with higher Black, Hispanic and Asian populations were significantly hotter.”

That includes the American South, where housing also tends to be older. Such homes are often in need of repair from the punishing damage of previous storms, with issues like rot and mold, and are less likely to be updated. Homes can be temperature-regulated passively without air conditioning, thanks to climate-friendly measures such as heavy drapes, shade awnings, and window or roof insulation or vents. But all those measures still cost money.

“There’s a disparity in access to cooling,” Dr. Elizabeth Gillespie of Denver Health told Colorado Public Radio during a heat wave in 2023. “I see people who have respiratory conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and they come in and they’re having an exacerbation of this,” she said. “And there’s really no other explanation, other than it was a hot day.”

Along with worsening chronic illnesses such as asthma, extreme heat can lead to rashes, fainting, cramps, exhaustion, heat stroke—and death. Cooling centers—air-conditioned buildings open to the public—often fill up and can be difficult to access if one does not have consistent transportation. “More than two-thirds of city residents said there aren’t enough places to stay cool around where they live,” according to Colorado Public Radio, which cited the need for accessible public parks and more shade trees, already in short supply in the West.

Not everyone gets a break from the heat by going to work or school. Many people work in unairconditioned buildings or outside where there is no relief. And when it comes to schools? Nearly half of America’s public school districts need to update or replace their HVAC systems in buildings.

In 2023, NPQ reported about the young people working for the Green New Deal for Public Schools Act, which supported retrofitting school buildings to better meet the challenges of climate change. An alarming number of schools don’t have any air conditioning at all—37 are without it in Denver, CO, alone, where 2023 marked the eighth hottest year on record.

The Leading Cause of Fires

It’s actually easier to protect people from cold than from heat.

As the world is warming, storms in winter are also becoming more frequent, severe, and unpredictable. As National Geographic reported, “A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. This moisture eventually falls as precipitation—either as rain (when temperatures are warm) or snow (when temperatures are below freezing)—which results in more frequent and intense storms.” Rising sea temperatures also contribute to the severity of storms because the warm oceans emit more moisture and, in turn, energy.

Illnesses, injuries, or deaths from cold, as well as heat, also connect to poverty. Those who are unhoused or work outside are exposed longer to deadly conditions, as are people who must walk to work or school, or wait for public transportation. Sidewalks are often treacherous with ice, and winter storms can result in a loss of electricity, particularly for older homes or houses in areas with overgrown trees that can fall on power lines.

Along with hypothermia, many cold-related deaths come from improper heating methods: space heaters that are faulty and fires that spread. People have died from carbon monoxide poisoning while attempting to use their ovens as a heat source. Heating is the leading cause of fires in manufactured homes, like the Thanksgiving Day fire that killed a family in Athens, OH, in 2023.

Despite these dire facts, it’s easier to protect people from cold than from heat. This is because methods to keep warm are more readily available and cheaper: people can pile on blankets, wear more layers, or stay indoors if possible.

But it isn’t always possible. When it comes to leaving the house in winter for work or school, some places, from Martha’s Vineyard, MA, to Middletown, NY, are making public transportation free in the winter months. The Middletown program is an expansion of a 2022 pilot program in Orange County, NY, that introduced free winter buses, leading to a 138 percent increase in ridership. As Orange County Senator James Skoufis told the Hudson Valley Press, “No matter their financial situation or how nasty the weather gets, folks still need to be able to get to appointments, visit friends and family, and stay connected.”

Many nonprofits and federally funded programs are available to assist households with heating bills. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is the largest, with initiatives designed to cut the risk of unsafe heating and cooling practices. Some programs, like Energy Outreach Colorado, also assist in home furnace repairs and upgrades to help make residences more energy efficient.

Placing the onus on individuals or small groups to help with extreme weather ignores the responsibility of governments to protect their people.

Larger Scale and Lower Impact Solutions

As it’s easier to keep people warm than to cool them, it may be more accessible for grassroots groups and individuals to help. The practice of leaving coats, scarves, sweaters, hats, or mittens—often home-knitted—outside on street corners, draped on signs or trees, and free for anyone to take has only grown in popularity.

But placing the onus on individuals or small groups to help with the effects of extreme weather ignores the responsibility of governments to protect their people—and to take action when it comes to the climate. The basic needs of many already aren’t being met, and the escalating impacts of climate change are causing those needs to grow at a rapid pace. Many solutions for severe weather are also currently energy-inefficient, from freon-spewing AC units to gas-guzzling buses: short-term solutions that are making the long-term problem of climate change worse.

Until there are large-scale solutions for more climate-friendly living and working spaces, carbon emissions will continue to increase as people, particularly those living in poverty, struggle to survive day-to-day. That’s why initiatives to upgrade homes from LIHEAP and others are essential, readying houses to endure climate change and not contribute to it.

In the hottest months, cooling centers, for which there is a growing demand, also need to be constructed with sustainability in mind. “Cool environments during heat waves help people avoid the worst threats,” the Washington Post wrote, yet too many centers are inefficient, inaccessible, fill up too quickly—or people lack the information to find them. Other people may also not seek out a shelter because they believe they are only for the elderly or unhoused.

“We need to be creative in thinking about how we make them accessible and not perceived as [a space] for certain groups of people,” Elena Grossman, a senior research specialist at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health, told the Washington Post.

Some lower-impact ways to cool off are also more traditional, such as planting more of the shade trees called for by residents in Colorado or devoting more land to public parks. Swimming pools or bodies of water available for wading or swimming would make a difference, especially if the pools are easily reachable via public transportation and open for longer hours.

Wealthier people simply have more places to go when the weather turns extreme. They can escape sweltering cities or hole up in warm hotels if their power goes out. Those options aren’t available to many people.

As the New York Times wrote, deaths from the extremes of climate change are failures to keep the most vulnerable safe: “So, as heat deaths rise, when we speak of those who die, don’t just say they died of heat. Say they died of poverty, of neglect, of a world that values the wealthy more than those who are not.”