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Protecting the Vulnerable: Climate Justice and Extreme Heat

July 27, 2020

The Yale Center on Climate Change and Health (YCCCH) matches Yale students with a limited number of summer internships related to climate change research and practice. These valuable hands-on learning opportunities are available to Yale School of Public Health students pursuing a master’s degree in public health and students from across Yale who are already serving as Student Associates at the Center due to their interest in climate change and health. Selected students can apply for funding support to cover expenses through either the Center itself or other sources.

This year’s summer interns are wrapping up their work. They are the first cohort to participate in the internship program since the YCCCH opened in the Yale School of Public Health in January 2020 as an extension of the Yale Climate Change and Health Initiative. The three students recently took a moment out of their busy schedules to share their stories, which will be highlighted today and over the next two days.

Student: Emily McInerney

Internship: WE ACT for Environmental Justice

Emily McInerney’s interest in climate justice and community empowerment made her the perfect candidate for a summer internship that focused on protecting vulnerable New York City residents from the health impacts of extreme heat.

McInerney was paired with WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a non-profit organization based in Harlem that advocates for fair environmental policies that protect the health and wellbeing of low-income residents and communities of color.

A former Peace Corps volunteer pursuing a joint degree in global affairs and climate management, McInerney was familiar with WE ACT’s Beauty Inside Out initiative to raise awareness of the toxic chemicals used in some cosmetics and shampoos. These chemicals pose a disproportionate health risk to women and girls of color because of the products marketed to them. She said she applied for the internship because she wanted to learn more about how the organization collaborates with community members in advocating for change.

“I appreciate that WE ACT prioritizes engaging residents and increasing community participation in its advocacy efforts.” McInerney said. “I would like to strengthen my understanding of environmental justice issues, specifically how the impacts of COVID-19 and heat are interacting to exacerbate existing inequalities.”

During her internship, McInerney has been supporting WE ACT’s Heat, Health, and Equity Initiative in Northern Manhattan. She is researching policies and programs that protect vulnerable populations in New York City from extreme heat and the health problems associated with it.

Extreme heat can provoke health complications, including heat stress, dehydration, fainting and mortality.

Emily McInerney

Extreme heat events are amplified in New York City due to the urban heat island effect. Urban heat islands are created, in part, by heat radiating off of buildings and pavement in congested areas and warm air getting trapped in those areas due to urban infrastructure. Urban heat islands, defined as urban regions that become warmer than their rural surroundings, are expected to increase as a result of climate change.

“Extreme heat can provoke health complications, including heat stress, dehydration, fainting and mortality,” said McInerney, a YCCCH student associate and a Master of Arts student at the Jackson Institute and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

According to Cool Neighborhoods NYC, a report released by the City of New York in 2017, there are about 13 heatstroke deaths a year in the city and over 100 deaths “from natural causes exacerbated by extreme heat.” Black people are disproportionately impacted, representing 50 percent of heat-related deaths even though they make up 25 percent of the city’s population. According to WE ACT’s website, a larger percentage of Northern Manhattan residents are low-income and at least a third live in homes with leaks, cracks or holes that make it difficult to cool properly.

The information McInerney is developing will be used to design short-term and long-term objectives and community-driven policy recommendations for WE ACT’s Heat, Health, and Equity Initiative in order to create a healthier community in Northern Manhattan.

More information on the Yale Center on Climate Change and Health’s Summer Internship program can be found on the Center’s website.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on July 27, 2020