California Faces Cascade of Health Harms from Climate Change

California just can’t catch a break from deadly weather extremes. A series of storms plowed across the state last weekend, tearing down powerlines, turning roads into rivers of mud, and killing several motorists. Ahead of the storms, concerns about flooding and mudslides prompted evacuation orders for the area hit by November 2018’s Woolsey Fire, the state’s seventh most destructive fire on record. California, of course, has a long history of extreme fires, floods, drought, and heat. But as carbon pollution from fossil fuels warms our climate, many of these extremes are becoming more frequent, more severe, and more of a threat to human health.

Winter storm off California’s coast, February 2, 2019

Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere/Regional and Mesoscale Meteorology Branch

Today, NRDC is examining those health threats with our latest issue brief, “Climate Change and Health in California.” This short report was almost a year in the making, as we scrambled to keep up with a rapid stream of new scientific journal articles, state climate assessments, and one climate- or weather-related tragedy after another.

California is a climate leader, with an impressive body of policies and programs to limit both the root causes and present-day harms of climate change. For example, California has one of the only safety standards in the country to protect workers from extreme heat. But the state is highly exposed to climate hazards simply because of its physical location, size, and geography. California is also the most racially- and ethnically-diverse state in the nation, has some of the least affordable and most overcrowded housing, has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor, and has the 14th highest unemployment rate. That’s a problem, because climate change most harms the people living with racial, demographic, and economic disparities.

David Ciani, Creative Commons/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The combination of California’s high exposure, high social and economic vulnerability, and the world’s upward trend of carbon pollution means the health harms of climate change are accruing faster than the state can respond. For instance, our new issue brief finds that:

  • The majority-Hispanic farm workers who help drive California’s $50 billion agriculture industry are particularly likely to experience heat-related illnesses and deaths, water shortages during drought, and a climate-sensitive fungal infection called Valley fever.
  • Elderly Californians, more than 10 percent of whom experience poverty, can have difficulties getting out of harms’ way of wildfires and floods, and are especially vulnerable to extreme heat and wildfire smoke.
  • California’s urban communities of color tend to live in the hottest neighborhoods with the most severe air pollution. At the same time, they can have more difficulty affording air-conditioning, which helps keep them safe from heat, smog, and wildfire smoke.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Despite California’s leadership in the fight against climate change, the state is experiencing a wide-ranging and severe array of climate-related harms. Climate change neither plays fair nor respects state or national boundaries. If anything, the Golden State’s current climate predicament is a critical reminder that the world’s willingness to drive down emissions will be the difference between us all sinking—or us all swimming.

About the Authors

Juanita Constible

Senior Advocate, Climate and Health, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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