Thermal inequity

The relationship between urban structure and social disparities in an era of climate change

Authored by: Bruce C. Mitchell , Jayajit Chakraborty

Routledge Handbook of Climate Justice

Print publication date:  November  2018
Online publication date:  November  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138689350
eBook ISBN: 9781315537689
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter frames distributive environmental concerns related to urban heat as a climate justice issue. Urban heat arises from the structure of cities as the natural landscape is reconfigured and replaced by built structures with different thermal characteristics and capacities – the physical basis of the urban heat island effect (UHI). The UHI is augmented by an elevated temperature baseline and increasing heatwaves caused by global climate change. While heatwaves affect entire metropolitan areas or larger regions, their intensity is spatially variable, resulting in differential neighbourhood effects. Thermal inequity is an example of the “climate gap,” typically defined as the disparity in the vulnerability of racial/ethnic minorities and individuals of lower socio-economic status to the negative effects of climate change in urban areas. This chapter examines the development of thermal inequity as a climate justice concern through a systematic review of the literature and recent quantitative case studies conducted by the authors in several U.S. metropolitan areas. These studies demonstrate that thermal inequity is at the core of climate justice concerns: people living at the economic and social margins, who are therefore least capable of mitigating the effects of a changing temperature baseline, face the greatest adverse impact.

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