The First Victims Of Climate Change

The First Victims Of Climate Change

By: Ilya Levangie

November 7, 2023

The summers are getting hotter, the winters harsher and worldwide we are seeing huge death tolls after an abnormal amount of major weather disasters. Climate change is a global phenomenon that has become increasingly pressing as climate scientists’ predictions for the future get ever closer.

Since the industrial revolution, humans have had a greater impact on the environment than ever before, and since at least the late 19th century, scientists have been observing the effects of climate change. However, it’s only in the last 50 years that the average person has begun to feel the drastic effects of this change. 

So far, 2023 is set to be the hottest year on record–previously a tie between 2016 and 2020–and more extreme weather patterns have been observed all over the world in the past decade alone. In August of 2022, one third of Pakistan was submerged underwater in unprecedented floods. Cyclone Freddy hit southeast Africa in March of this year, breaking records as one of the longest cyclones ever recorded in human history. 

In North America, major climate events have occurred nearly every month this year. Wildfires have ravaged eastern Canada and Hawaii. Tornados killed more people in the US by April of 2023 than normal numbers by the end of a single year. Extreme heat waves persisted in the South during the summer months. In Michigan, seven tornados in a single night and a week of severe storms caused flooding, severe damage and left thousands without power.

According to the Washington Post, more than 40% of Americans are living in counties that were affected by climate disasters in 2022. Along with loss of lives and injuries, homes and neighborhoods are being destroyed in these events.

According to the Biden-Harris administration, affordable housing is more likely to be located in a flood zone, with low-income Americans, retirees and people of color more likely to be affected by the loss of homes. In Maui, where there was already a housing crisis due to the high cost of living, the wildfires have left thousands of people unhoused.

The first people affected by these extreme changes in the climate are, of course, those who don’t have shelter. Over 550,000 people in America experience some form of housing precarity, including temporary and permanent homelessness. In 2022, 130,000 of those people were experiencing chronic homelessness. 

The people in America who are primarily affected by homelessness are BIPOC individuals and families, with Black Americans experiencing homelessness at nearly four times the rate of white Americans at 48 out of every 10,000 people. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders more than double that number at 121 out of every 10,000 people. Nearly 40% of all homeless people are without access to shelter services, and live in places that are not safe for habitation. 

While it seems obvious that houseless people are the first people to be affected by unpredictable weather, the specifics are important. Currently, it’s unclear whether the most vulnerable populations are receiving proper warning about extreme weather, such as heat alerts. 91% of homeless people are living in suburban and urban areas where heat waves can be made even worse by the “heat-island effect.” 

In Maricopa County, Arizona, heat related deaths amongst homeless people nearly doubled in 2020 and 2021. Beyond death, homeless populations are significantly more likely to have chronic and mental illnesses and to use alcohol or drugs, all which increase their vulnerability to extreme weather. There has also been research to show that extreme weather events can cause significant mental health issues in homeless people, including post-traumatic stress disorder in direct response.

Both climate change and homelessness should be considered global emergencies in their own right, and the time to take action is now. Every American is affected by this, and supporting work that contributes directly to ending these emergencies is the solution. There are many solutions, both immediate and long term. 

To mitigate the housing crisis, support policies that enforce equitable and affordable housing such as rent control and more protections against housing discrimination. There should be an effort to build strong and long lasting infrastructure. Support funding for homeless shelters and housing assistance programs, prioritizing providing shelter first, while reducing the stringent restrictions that are enforced on the people who use these programs.

In direct response to the clear threat of climate change and the increase in climate disasters, more funding and support needs to be put toward the disaster response such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and directly supporting state efforts to mitigate potential climate disasters in the future.

This includes reinforcing existing infrastructure. There needs to be better pre-disaster response, ensuring that vulnerable populations actually receive proper communication and assistance in evacuation if necessary. 

Ultimately, the community is responsible for the safety and well-being of each other, but especially the most vulnerable people in those communities. Houseless people are just as much neighbors and fellow community members as the ones who live in the house next door, and their needs and interests should be represented. Listen to them, amplify their voices, call senators and congressmen and, even if there is no immediate governmental response, keep showing up and doing the work. There can be no ignoring what and who is right on our doorstep.

Ilya LeVangie is a senior majoring in English and Professional and Public Writing, with minors in Music and Russian. They are planning to go to grad school for an MFA in creative writing, and teach English at a community college afterwards. His free time is spent making art and people watching.