Climate Justice in Rural Southeastern United States: A Review of Climate Change Impacts and Effects on Human Health
1.1. The Vulnerable Southeastern United States
1.2. Climate Justice
1.3. Regional Context and Review Framework
2. Evidence and Projected Climate Change Effects in the Southeastern United States
|Environmental Factors and Supporting Scientific Data||Historical Evidence of Impacts||Predicted Future Impacts|
|Extreme Hot— |
Since 1970 there have been increasing numbers of days above 95 °F and nights above 75 °F, and decreasing numbers of extremely cold days .
|Major cities such as Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, and Tampa have reported an increase in deaths from 1975 to 2004 relative to an increase in 95 oF and above days .||Heat stress can affect dairy and livestock production and reduce crop productivity with a coupling of drought conditions . Climate projections indicate that Georgia’s corn yields could decline by 15% and wheat yields by 20% by the end of 2020 . |
Increased temperatures will cause a decline in dissolved oxygen in streams, lakes, and rivers, causing fish kills and loss of aquatic biodiversity .
|Extreme Cold— |
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates that in the last 50 years, daily minimum temperatures have increased faster than daily mean or maximum temperatures . Thus, the frequency of extreme cold temperatures has declined over the last half-century.
|From records throughout the U.S. from 1895–2010, the trends show that in the most recent decades there has been an increase in the number of heat waves and a decrease in the number of cold waves . This has direct impact on agricultural products with temperature threshold responses of agricultural pests .||While extreme events will increase overall, some extreme events, such as cold, will decrease  (p. 495). |
The energy infrastructure in the Southeast U.S. can produce 32% of the nation's energy and is currently providing nearly 27%. Net energy demand will increase along with energy costs due to more extreme high relative to low temperatures and increased air conditioning usage .
ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation), periodic changes in ocean surface temperature in the mid-latitude Pacific Ocean, may be correlated to increased precipitation in North America; whereas, La Niña conditions in the tropical Pacific may be correlated to drought conditions in North America. These events are thought to be closely tied to global warming .
|The biggest cause of flooding and drought worldwide can be attributed to El Niño and La Niña climatic events . |
The El Niño/La Niña event in 1997–1998 caused $35–45 million in damage and approximately 23,000 deaths worldwide as the Southeastern U.S. received record-setting rainfall [44,45].
|Atmospheric modelling programs project an increase of El Niño events due to global warming, increasing occurrences of devastating weather effects . |
Climate change may have a significant impact on the processes and feedbacks that are responsible for determining ENSO characteristics and thus, the frequency and strength of events .
|Changes in Seasons |
Records from 1948 to 2007 have shown intensified fluctuations in summer rainfall in the Southeastern U.S. These anomalies are due to an increase in dry days occurring in already dry summers and an increase in wet days occurring in an already wet summers . The increased evapotranspiration occurring in extensive droughts increase sensible heat fluxes and surface temperatures, intensifying summer heat waves .
|In the Southeast region, mortality rates due to seasonal heat sensitivity have remained consistent over recent time between 0.5 and 1.0 DSM (deaths per standardized million), and national regional variability in mortality has become less apparent across the U.S. .||Crops from trees and bushes requiring chilling periods may need to be replaced due to seasonal changes . |
Warming in the Northern portion of the Southeast U.S. is projected to increase the length of the “freeze-free” season by as much as 30 days by approximately 2050 .
The IPCC shows that incidences of flooding, as well as drought, have increased substantially in the last three decades .
|In Summer 2011, the Lower Mississippi Valley experienced areas of flooding and drought related to the La Niña Conditions in the Pacific Ocean . |
In Baton Rouge people were piling sandbags to protect from flooding, while people living in the upper landscape in Louisiana experienced extreme drought .
|National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s (NOAA) Climatic Data Center expects the Southeastern U.S. to remain on an increasing participation trend except in summer months . |
Rural areas may be slightly better suited for flooding conditions due to pervious land cover by forested and agricultural land as compared to an impervious urban environment .
In the Southeastern U.S., the percentage of areas experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions has increased in the past 30 years .
|Drought and intense thunderstorms have contributed to an increase in soil runoff and erosion and have affected crop yields as a result .||The Southeast is in a transition zone between conditions projected to be wetter in the north and drier in the southwest . |
The net water availability in the Southeast U.S. is projected to decrease in the decades to come, this is particularly in the western Southeast .
The North Atlantic Subtropical High (NASH) will intensify and move westward with the increasing CO2 levels, increasing both extreme rainfall and drought in the Southeastern U.S. .
|Storm Surge |
Empirical evidence through modelling shows a heightened Atlantic hurricane surge in warmer conditions that is further exacerbated by sea level rise .
|The North Carolina Department of Transportation is already raising U.S. Hwy 64 from Albemarle-Pamlico by four feet to allow for anticipated sea level rise water levels and subsequent storm surges .||Land loss may cause loss of plant and wildlife, food security, connectivity to the mainland, connections among family members and community cohesiveness . |
Homes and infrastructures are susceptible to sea level rise, indirectly causing an increase in insurance cost or inability to receive coverage in certain areas such as along the Gulf Coast .
|Saltwater Intrusion |
This occurs when an aquifer is pumped faster than can be replaced and saltwater moves into the aquifer. The effects of groundwater extraction due to population growth along coastlines on coastal aquifers is more significant than the impact on sea-level rise due to climate change. Salt water inundation (landward movement of the coastline) will be more important than salt water intrusion due to sea-level-rise .
|Rising sea levels put additional stress on energy and water utility companies to guard against contamination of saltwater into freshwater reserves along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts . |
Leaders in Hallandale Beach, Florida, have already closed down 6 of the 8 drinking water wells due to salt water intrusion from seawater moving into porous aquifers [58,59].
|Crop production will be reduced due to the availability of freshwater underground for irrigation as saltwater intrudes aquifers in times of drought . |
The development of lands due to increasing populations will exacerbate saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers, rendering the aquifer useless for irrigation and household use .
|Sea Level Rise |
Sea level has risen globally an average of 8 inches over the last century .
|Louisiana has lost 1880 sq mi of land in the last 80 years due to rising seas, sinking lands, and human development .||Sea level rise is expected to continue in this trend indefinitely . |
Municipal infrastructures such as cities, railways, airports, and water supplies are at low elevation and subject to sea level rise. New Orleans, Miami, Tampa, Charleston, and Virginia Beach are particularly susceptible to sea level rise .
In the land areas bordering the Gulf of Mexico, almost all of the “most socially vulnerable people live in areas unlikely to be protected from inundation“ due to sea level rise .
|Extreme Weather Events|
Florida experienced four major hurricanes in one month in the summer of 2004, and the 2005 hurricane season brought four additional major hurricanes .
Between 1994 and 2008, rainfall from U.S. tropical cyclones that made landfall was higher than the historical average .
|Hurricane-associated winds and flooding not only damaged property but caused drowning, injury, stress, illness, and death due to contaminated floodwater and CO poisoning (from generator use) . |
“The Southeast has been affected by more billion-dollar disasters than any other region“  (p. 397).
|Projections suggest that warming will cause few tropical storms and hurricanes; however, the storms that do form will increase in intensity (i.e., more Category 4 and 5 Storms). There may be even greater economic repercussions for those living within the paths of hurricanes .|
There has been an increase in number of tornadoes over the last 50 years but the increase is not statistically significant .
|The Southern U.S. experienced 753 tornadoes in April, 2011, breaking the previous monthly record of 542. In May 2011, 178 fatalities were reported in relation to tornadoes in the Southern U.S. .||Conditions leading to strong thunderstorms and subsequently, tornadoes, are expected to increase with warming; however, there are other factors to consider such as vertical and horizontal wind variations that are needed to produce tornadoes .|
|Winter Storms |
The number of severe snowstorms since 1960 is more than twice that of severe regional storms that occurred in the 60 years prior .
|Direct relationships between human health and cold temperature are not as pronounced as compared to hot temperatures; thus, linking cold weather and death rates has been more difficult .||Climate change will not only alter globally averaged surface temperature but also changes atmospheric circulation; occasionally stronger winds from polar regions will cause colder winters in the Southeastern U.S. . |
Power outages associated with winter storms may lead to an increase in air quality problems from CO and particulates from wood and coal-burning stoves and fireplaces as well as gas or diesel generators .
Severe thunderstorms with large values of wind shear and potential energy and moist enthalpy close to the Earth‘s surface have been increasing over the last few decades .
|Wildfires are often begun by lightning strikes; the Southeast U.S. has the highest frequency of lightning strikes in the nation .||Due to increasing temperatures and a change in weather patterns, lightning frequency may increase, which will, in turn, affect air quality and increase the occurrences of direct lightning strikes and wildfires .|
3. Climate Justice and Human Health
4. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for the Southeastern U.S.
|Exposure Class||Mitigation Strategy Example||Adaptation Strategy Example||Related Health Effects|
|Air||Ozone: Local and regional government, as well as private landowners, increase plant and forest coverage to reduce ambient concentrations of ozone. Those in the public and private sector reduce vehicle miles traveled, use alternate fuel types, and carpool in rural and nearby urban areas to minimize release of ozone precursors . |
Greenhouse Gases: Communication technologies such as the Internet, online meeting and conferencing, and document sharing decrease vehicle and air transportation, thus decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and decreasing carbon footprints .
Reduced meat consumption may mitigate greenhouse gas emissions but may negatively impact zinc and iron intake, requiring that winter fruit and vegetable supply availability be monitored .
Biofuels used as a renewable energy source but must be monitored as they can exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions through their combustion .
The IPCC Working Group 2, Fifth Assessment Report, recommends providing better access to reproductive health services to improve both maternal and child health while reducing population growth and subsequently greenhouse gas emissions over time .
Particulate Matter: Decreases in emissions from transportation sectors result in decreased toxicants such as sulfur oxide and particulate matter (PM), reducing incidences in lung cancer .
Changes in agricultural practices such as frequent tillage of land minimizes introduction of airborne particulates, some of which can cause infectious disease .
|Communication Methods: Susceptible and vulnerable populations for breathing-related conditions made aware of weather conditions (i.e., extreme temperatures or extreme humidity levels) and adjust activities and locations accordingly . Aggressive public health plans (i.e., early warning systems and improved health communications) may prove successful in minimizing heat related mortalities along with maximizing air-conditioning use and sun-shielding/cooling clothing, and decreasing time spent outdoors .|
Diet/Behavior Modification: The reduction of red meat consumption to a more plant protein diet may also lower the risk of colorectal and other cancers, as well as lower the risk of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease . This would provide a co-benefit for individual health, health care costs and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions .
Increasing exercise routines and ability to maintain cardiovascular health reduces the burden of cardiovascular disease, especially in the Southeastern U.S.; however, individuals need access to indoor exercise equipment as outdoor air pollution levels are expected to rise. Populations already financially stressed are least likely to have consistent access to indoor facilities .
Equipment Provisioning: Heat-related illnesses can be prevented through the access and use of air conditioning and fluid intake in high risk populations . However, the increase in emissions (depending on the power source used) and energy costs associated with increased air-conditioning use requires monitoring .
|Asthma, Respiratory Allergies, and Airway Diseases.|
Cardiovascular Disease and Stroke.
Foodborne Disease and Nutrition.
Human Developmental Effects.
Mental Health and Stress-Related Disorders.
Weather and Heat-Related Morbidity and Mortality.
|Water and Soil||Toxicant Exposure: Reduction in fossil fuel use minimizes the release of some neurotoxicants including arsenic, mercury, and other heavy metals . |
Proper disposal of products such as florescent light bulbs and batteries for electric vehicles is essential to reduce risk of contamination .
Proper agricultural practices such as minimal to no-tillage of land and proper pesticide application reduce erosion and minimize pesticide infiltration into waters and soils [104,107].
By removing toxic compounds from building materials and facilitating recycling and biodegradation of components, human illness through air and waterborne pollution is reduced .
Diverting staple crops for use as biofuels may necessitate the use of additional chemicals for crop production .
Disease Transmission: Reforestation can help with flooding and air quality but be a breeding ground for VBZD and reduce potential agricultural land .
Continued development of solar and wind farms minimizes water usage in power production and, in turn, minimizes threats of waterborne disease .
|Communication Methods: It is important to continue developing early warning systems, evacuation plans, and emergency plans and warning systems [108,109]. |
Planners will need to continue efforts to fortify natural barriers for flooding and erosion, such as wetlands and tidal marches .
Combatting Drought: Ponds and dams are used widely to manage water supplies, possibly allowing for the spread of certain VBZD .
Capture and storage of rainwater may prove excellent breeding grounds for mosquitos harboring VBZD. In addition, pesticide use to control organisms harboring VBZD may introduce potential toxicants into environmental sectors .
Land Use: Zoning permits are limited for at-risk land [108,109].
Best land-use practices in agriculture and use of locally recycled water (grey-water) slow rates of water table depletion and reduce the impacts of heavy precipitation events that are anticipated in the Southeast .
|Asthma, Respiratory Allergies, and Airway Diseases.|
Mental Health and Stress-Related Disorders.
Neurological Diseases and Disorders.
Vectorborne/Zoonotic Diseases (VBZD).
Weather and Heat-Related Morbidity and Mortality.
|Occupational||Commercial Technological Advances: New technologies in power generation (i.e., solar cells, portable electric storage systems for cars/batteries, hydrogen fuel cells) require monitoring for unintended occupational exposure to toxic, cancer-causing materials such as lithium, lead, and cadmium .|
Toxicant Exposure: The proper application and use of pesticides reduce occupational exposure for pesticide applicators despite new and expanded pesticide use .
|Communication Methods: Healthcare providers increase awareness that individuals with chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and epilepsy are predisposed to dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke [108,111].|
Working Condition Modifications: Heat exposure and excessive air humidity conditions for outdoor workers and workers without air conditioning addressed by way of frequent breaks that include access to water and air conditioning, shifted work output and hours during the hottest part of the day, and monitoring for workers’ physiological reaction to heat .
Neurological Diseases and Disorders.
Weather and Heat-Related. Morbidity and Mortality.
5. Future Research and Limitations
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Gutierrez, K.S.; LePrevost, C.E. Climate Justice in Rural Southeastern United States: A Review of Climate Change Impacts and Effects on Human Health. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2016, 13, 189. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph13020189
Gutierrez KS, LePrevost CE. Climate Justice in Rural Southeastern United States: A Review of Climate Change Impacts and Effects on Human Health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2016; 13(2):189. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph13020189Chicago/Turabian Style
Gutierrez, Kristie S., and Catherine E. LePrevost. 2016. "Climate Justice in Rural Southeastern United States: A Review of Climate Change Impacts and Effects on Human Health" International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13, no. 2: 189. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph13020189