Climate Change Hazards + Social Vulnerability = A Recipe for Disaster


Climate change brings numerous ecological shifts, including the risk for increased and more intense hazardous events. However, all people will not experience this crisis in the same way as some are disproportionately more exposed to risks of death, loss, and harm. For this reason, climate justice is an imperative and must involve transgenerational action, while paying attention to the intersectionality of populations most at risk. Individuals, communities, organizations, and governments all play a role in reducing vulnerabilities, adapting sustainably, and mitigating hazards.

Key Words:

hazardous events, ecological shifts, equity, climate justice, intersectionality, transgenerational action

My family was ordered to evacuate our home. We were directed to evacuation points. Beforehand, I, my mother, my brother, and two sisters visited a nursing home where the elderly clients had been abandoned by the owners and staff. There were five elderly persons there; the others had been evacuated earlier, perhaps by family. The day before the flood, the manager had come and told everyone they had to get out. Taking the keys to the bus that the home used to transport the senior citizens, the manager left them stranded. We rescued them. We shared all our food and provisions. When we approached the police and asked for help, they refused to help us. Instead, they threatened to shoot my baby brother.

—Leah Hodges, New Orleans Resident, 2005

As Leah Hodges chronicles her experiences during Hurricane Katrina, she describes what would have been a tragedy had her family not intervened. It certainly was for other older and disabled residents of long-term care facilities who were trapped, abandoned, or euthanized in the aftermath of the storm. Thus, one of the most destructive natural disasters in United States history was also one of the deadliest—especially for people ages 75 and older who represented nearly half of Hurricane Katrina’s fatalities in Louisiana (49%). Approximately one-third of Katrina victims (34%) were recovered from nursing facilities and hospitals (Brunkard, Namulanda, & Ratard, 2008). Hodges’ testimony to the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina further reveals how natural hazards do not occur in the absence of social issues (e.g., the threat of police violence for Black males), but instead may compound or exacerbate these issues for those most susceptible to harm. For this reason, it is necessary to understand global warming and its consequences not just ecologically, but also morally and socially to achieve justice while confronting the climate change crisis.

One of the most noticeable effects of the global temperature increase is the resultant increase in the frequency and severity of geological and climatological events (e.g., storms, droughts, heat waves, sea level rise). Everyone everywhere faces the increased risk and likelihood of experiencing the negative impacts of weather-related hazards to varying degrees, but not everyone has the same resources or capabilities to weather these literal and figurative storms.

Vulnerability, a socioeconomic phenomenon, is characterized by a disproportionate risk of death, injury, or loss, as well as greater than average difficulties in recovering from an extreme event. When hazardous events expose these vulnerabilities, a disaster occurs. Avoiding disasters like Hurricane Katrina in the future requires society to take a climate justice approach by “paying attention to how climate change impacts people differently, unevenly, and disproportionately, as well as redressing the resultant injustices in fair and equitable ways … to reduce marginalization, exploitation, and oppression, and enhance equity and justice” (Sultana, 2021).

Climate Change and Justice

There are few global issues that are as far reaching, costly, or consequential as climate change or the aging of society as populations live longer on a warmer, over-burdened planet. In the face of the most serious threat facing humanity, the American Society on Aging (ASA) has established the strategic priorities of “Justice & Equity” and “Health & Well-Being”—and both aspirations include and require climate justice as ASA seeks to improve equity within the context of aging. The concept of climate justice ascends directly from the environmental justice movement that has sought for decades to have all people, regardless of personal or community characteristics, treated fairly when it comes to environmental protection, risks, policies, and decision-making. The climate justice movement shares these goals while focusing on the uneven and disproportionate impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and other climate change processes and interventions. Though climate justice is broadly conceived as international in scope, this article focuses on subnational communities in the United States.

‘The climate change crisis is an intergenerational issue that requires a transgenerational response.’

Achieving climate justice will allow society to improve the experience of living and aging for all people if intentionally undertaken with a transgenerational and intersectional approach. The Bali Principles of Climate Justice, established in 2002, include as a core principle that “[c]limate Justice calls for the education of present and future generations, emphasizes climate, energy, social and environmental issues, while basing itself on real-life experiences and an appreciation of diverse cultural perspectives” (International Climate Justice Network, 2002). It is the responsibility of all generations existing now to act for future generations. The climate change crisis is an intergenerational issue that requires a transgenerational response.

Along with this transgenerational approach, the climate justice framework is also intersectional as it considers how multiple dimensions of our lives (e.g., age, gender, citizenship, socioeconomic level) intersect to create distinct experiences of power and privilege for individuals with multiple facets of identity (Crenshaw, 1989). We must strive to understand how individual identities as well as community characteristics combine and overlap in complex, cumulative processes to create varying experiences of privilege and vulnerability.

The federal government’s new Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool identifies neighborhoods that are disadvantaged in the face of pollution by simultaneously using socioeconomic, environmental, health, and climate indicators such as energy burden, higher education enrollment, proximity to hazardous waste facilities, life expectancy, linguistic isolation, and expected economic loss due to climate change. Critically analyzing the socioeconomic and political processes underpinning the unequal distribution of risks and benefits helps to identify and support communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by the climate crisis.

Climate Change and Age at the Intersections

While age has traditionally been a risk factor for mortality due to biology, the same is not true for natural, technical, or man-made hazards where, instead, vulnerability is the major risk factor for excess mortality. Although the average age of Hurricane Katrina victims was 69, of the fatalities with known causes of death, nearly half (48%) were due to drowning, almost a third (31%) were due to severe trauma or injuries (Brunkard, Namulanda, & Ratard, 2008). Hence, when age intersects with physical (health), social, political, or environmental factors, overall vulnerability may be compounded.

Considering such vulnerabilities is similar to the “social determinants of health” model that recognizes how factors in an individual’s environment can affect a wide range of quality-of-life outcomes and risks. Health and dis/ability are primary examples because climate change hazards such as extreme heat, wildfires, floods, and storms can result in multiple related health threats including pollution (e.g., air, water, noise), food and water insecurity, or vector-borne diseases. The threat is more severe for people ages 65 and older as the heat-related mortality of this group has increased by more than 50% in the past 20 years (Watts et al., 2021), though other vulnerable populations including children, ethnic minorities, poorer communities, and those with underlying health problems disproportionately suffer harm as well (Atwoli et al., 2021).

Though emergency preparedness and planning procedures for long-term care facilities and hospitals have been re-examined nationwide since the Katrina disaster, there are still many risks for residents, staff, and administrators who encounter extreme hazard events. Tough decisions must be made regarding if, when, how, and where to evacuate. Evacuation itself carries considerable risk and places stress on patients, which is known as “transfer (relocation) trauma,” and means that being moved out of a facility or home ultimately accelerates their death. There is a danger to patients in leaving and in leaving too soon as heat, evacuation traffic, and the use of life-saving equipment must be considered.

In addition to worry about people who live in long term care facilities, there is concern for those who have little to no dwelling place. In last year’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (2021) found that homelessness increased in each of the four recent years (2016–20) with more unhoused individuals having been unsheltered than sheltered for the first time in 2020. While those who are “sheltered” stay in temporary accommodations (i.e., emergency shelters, transitional housing, safe havens), people who are “unsheltered” spend their nights in public or private places not ordinarily used for sleeping (e.g., vehicles, parks, streets), which leaves the latter group particularly vulnerable to climate change.

The unhoused are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Approximately half of homeless single adults are ages 50 or older, while those ages 65 and older are the fastest growing age group of people who are homeless (Kushel, 2020). There is “evidence that individuals experiencing homelessness are disproportionately impacted by disasters due to factors such as exposure to the elements, lack of resources and services, as well as disenfranchisement, and stigma associated with homelessness, all while experiencing greater occurrences of environmental injustice” (Gibson, 2019). This is cause for concern as homelessness, aging, and the climate crisis continue to intersect and become increasingly entangled.

Understanding the interaction between income and climate change is also crucial to achieving climate justice. With warmer surface temperatures and changing weather patterns, climate change is costly. There are increased heating and cooling costs that result from these changes, as well as increased insurance premiums for households due to more extreme weather events. Underlying these concerns are the fact that having low or no income increases vulnerability by reducing one’s ability to moderate or offset potential stressors in disasters and everyday life. The majority of Hurricane Katrina–related deaths occurred in the lower ninth ward of Orleans Parish (Brunkard, Namulanda, & Ratard, 2008), which had three times the national average of people living in poverty (36%) and almost a third of residents (32%) reported having no vehicle available to them a few years prior the storm (Data Center, 2021). Low-income Americans also are more exposed to hazards and likely to suffer due to inadequate community infrastructure and positioning closer to environmental hazards.

Wealth, a distinct but related concept, includes the assets of an individual or household and plays a role in recovery and resilience. Natural disasters can increase or decrease family and community wealth, though not equitably. A recent study found that White families in communities with significant damage from natural disasters experienced an increase in their average wealth resulting from the dispersal of government aid and generous reinvestment initiatives, while minority families experienced a smaller increase or even a decrease in wealth (Howell and Elliott, 2019). This pattern is a prime example of climate racism.

Racism, a harmful exposure in itself, is socially reproduced at multiple scales due to a long legacy of unequal power relationships that have caused people of color to be the most affected by the climate crisis. Understanding environmental disasters within their historical, social, and political contexts is vital to understanding the African American experience (Rivera and Miller, 2007). Examples of climate racism abound, but hazards, like injustices, can be sequential, combined, or converging in their origin and effects. For example, “[l]ow-income and minority populations are also more likely to live near industrial facilities and are therefore at a higher risk for chemical spills and toxic leaks resulting from tropical storms” (Patnaik et al., 2020).

A social category often neglected in disaster preparedness and recovery is gender. Transgender individuals have perceived threats, negative biases, and disparate treatment in shelters after a disaster—all factors that may prevent them from seeking needed assistance in the future (Fontanez, 2019). Other members of the LGBTQ+ community also may encounter negative stereotypes, program biases, and marginalization when their identities and family relations are not recognized, understood, or respected, which makes them less likely overall to benefit from disaster relief services (Goldsmith, Raditz, and Méndez, 2021).

Women’s experiences in the environment differ in significant ways due to the pre-existing unequal power relations of society that render them vulnerable. As a result, women and girls typically have higher rates of mortality, injury, and illness after a disaster, in addition to increased rates of sexual and domestic violence against them in disaster contexts (Enarson and Fordham, 2001). During a disaster, the demands for women’s (often unpaid) labor (e.g., childcare, domestic labor, community work) increase, along with strain on broader caregiving networks (Bradshaw, 2015). Our experience with the coronavirus pandemic confirms this.

Yet women are not a monolithic group with universal interests, nor are they helpless and passive victims. They are often productive, resourceful social actors who play key roles in households and communities before, during, and after a disaster occurs. Accounting for gender as well as the numerous social categories that may intersect with gender will better inform climate research and adaptation.

Besides the social factors that shape individual experiences of climate change, physical and environmental factors are important because hazard risk is primarily characterized by location as events have an immediate impact on specific places. When the climate of a place changes over an extended period, there are significant shifts in the average weather or variability of the climate for that place or region. There may be shifts in people, too, due to displacement, as an adaptation to threatened livelihoods, or simply for comfort.

In the latter case, one long-term trend has been called “Sun Belt migration” and involves people moving to southwestern and southeastern states seeking more favorable weather, but also job opportunities and more affordable housing. This migration pattern has always appealed to those who are retired, but it has accelerated because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing threat of climate hazards (Brumer, 2021). These trends may change as the impacts of climate change become more apparent. It’s possible that domestic climate migration that counters Sun Belt migration may occur in the future as all U.S. states have become warmer over the past century (USAFacts, 2021).

'Women and girls typically have higher rates of mortality, injury, and illness after a disaster.’

The classification of geographic areas into urban, rural, coastal, or otherwise also indicates distinct considerations for the future. Of the many frameworks used to determine social vulnerability, few account for the setting-specific nature of each place. Urban areas are faced with the heat island effect or reduced air quality due to the increased production of ground-level ozone. Meanwhile, rural communities may encounter drought, wildfires, or flooding in addition to concerns over water diversion (to urban areas), economic deprivation, and the outmigration of young adults.

Some rural communities are also coastal, an intersection that brings additional risks and concerns as land subsidence and wetland degradation have left parts of the coast much more vulnerable to sea level rise, intense storms, and severe flooding. Coping with and responding to these hazards is often dependent upon a community’s sociodemographic context, which informs its social vulnerability, or resilience when confronted by climatic and non-climatic stressors. But coastal communities dependent upon fishing, aquatic farming, tourism, or other marine resources for subsistence are experiencing economic decline and extreme environmental changes due to climate change, anthropogenic disturbances, natural disasters and/or other extreme events resulting in ecological imbalance(s) (e.g., harmful algal blooms [red tide]). In sum, the detrimental consequences of environmental change and disasters extend beyond the coastal ecosystem and impact the entirety of the coastal region, including social, cultural, and economic community structures.

Strategies for Just Adaptation

Achieving climate justice requires more than attending to vulnerability risks. It also requires appropriately adapting behavior, systems, and policies to ensure that communities and environments are protected, and distinct needs are met. Reducing risks means building capacity—the social, financial, physical and other resources and capabilities to cope with and respond to hazards. Capacity can be framed as personal (developing human skills such as leadership), and organizational or societal (developing infrastructure).

As individuals better understand global warming and accept its reality, they will (hopefully) see that there is a heightened need for their own preparation financially, physically, and communally through actions that avoid or lessen potential climate-related environmental impacts. Building knowledge and awareness of risks may consist of formal or informal environmental education and outreach that promotes climate change adaptation activities and improves awareness of climate-related health threats and their prevention. In addition to preparing themselves and their households, individuals also have the duty to promote climate change mitigation by taking steps that increase the probability of collective action on this crisis.

At the same time, communities should take several steps including assessment, reducing the vulnerabilities, and increasing the adaptive capacities of different population groups. Such practices may include implementing weatherization programs to reduce building loads, especially for low-income individuals, or increasing public health and volunteer intervention strategies for socially isolated community members such as older adults.

It also will be necessary to judiciously manage resources while promoting sustainable development in normal times and during crises or adverse conditions. Improving infrastructure by expanding energy systems to prevent disruptions during hazards or planting trees to reduce heat island effects are examples of community practices that could be initiated. Such adjustments to the built environment as well as to social practices and political procedures allow communities to adapt to the effects and impacts of climate change, offset the potential for damage from hazards, and withstand adverse conditions that could lead to a disaster.

Along with these practices, there are policies that can be implemented or improved. Proactive preparation that anticipates climate change effects and includes possible risks in emergency management planning is already standard for many municipalities. Still, there is a need to consider social and economic vulnerabilities in this planning, as well as in the reactive responses to sudden, widespread disruption that may result from environmental hazards. Establishing indicators of vulnerability and resilience by monitoring social, financial, and environmental trends over time can yield measures that assess progress toward achieving climate justice.

With a focus on justice as we navigate our new global reality we must consider not only transitioning to more sustainable ways of living in just manners, but also in how we adapt. The ability to adapt to climate-related threats depends upon the action and resources of individuals, organizations, communities, and governments to build capacity and resilience. Policymakers are encouraged to develop “No Regrets” policies “that make good sense to implement whether or not the consequences of climate change turn out to be as projected ... by supporting adaptation and mitigation strategies along with hazard-specific response capacity to building” (Prasad et al., 2009).

What should “No Regrets” policies look like? Even in the best-case scenarios, climate change mitigation will not eliminate the need to pursue climate justice. Consequently, what would climate justice solutions look like for our communities? How can we ensure that our transition and further development are sustainable, age-friendly, and just? How can we sustainably live in places we care about while also enjoying equity? The disaster(s) of Hurricane Katrina remind us that these are the questions we should be asking not only in New Orleans, but everywhere that people and places are vulnerable as the social, cultural, and economic dynamics of climate justice remain inherently linked to other struggles for social justice.

Milanika S. Turner, PhD, is an environmental justice advocate and assistant professor of Sociology at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. She may be contacted at


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