A Tale of Two Neighborhoods: Detroit Neighborhoods Show Us How Communities Are Affected Differently by Climate Change

As the effects of climate change continue to unfold, all communities across the U.S. will face a wider range of risks. However, some communities will be more affected by those risks due to greater exposure and limited ability to recover from their effects.  

For two neighboring communities in Detroit, the U.S. Climate Vulnerability Index, a new tool developed by Environmental Defense Fund and Texas A&M University in partnership with many others, illustrates how a community’s baseline vulnerability can determine its capacity to address devastating floods, storms, droughts, wildfires and other extreme weather events. 

Community Baseline for Detroit metro area.  

Figure 1. Community Baseline for Detroit metro area.  

Eight Mile Road demarcates Detroit’s northern city limits, but it also functions as a de-facto racial boundary between the predominately Black urban city center and the mainly white suburbs north of the commuter artery. Eight Mile-Wyoming, a census tract south of Eight Mile Road, possesses one of the highest vulnerability scores in the country, while Ferndale, a census tract opposite it on the northern side, has one of the lowest.  

Over 180 indicators of vulnerability and risk underpin the rankings given to each census tract. For Eight-Mile Wyoming, one predominant driver of vulnerability stems from a high residential energy cost burden, meaning that families in this community pay a higher percentage of their household income on energy costs. More specifically, Eight-Mile Wyoming has a residential energy cost burden greater than 97% of all other ranked U.S. Census tracts. By comparison, Ferndale has one of the lowest energy cost burdens in the U.S.  

Residential Energy Cost Burden shows the stark difference of how much income households living north and south of Eight Mile Road spend on energy costs.

Figure 2. Residential Energy Cost Burden shows the stark difference of how much income households living north and south of Eight Mile Road spend on energy costs.  

In recent years, Detroit residents have been subject to frequent rate increases, forcing low-income residents to take drastic measures , like unplugging essential home appliances to afford life-saving electronic medical devices. Additionally, those who are spending a larger portion of their income on energy are also experiencing poorer service, including longer and more frequent shutoffs. According to one study, Michigan is one of the slowest states to return power after shutoffs. 

Eight-Mile Wyoming and Ferndale will likely face more frost days, heavier snowfall and storms, along with hotter temperatures, making grid reliability vital. Summer and winter storms that knock out power for days on end are becoming more common in the Detroit metropolitan area. Living in homes that lack proper heating or cooling increases cases of asthma, respiratory problems, heart disease, arthritis and rheumatism – issues that residents of Eight Mile already experience to a high degree.  

Eight-Mile Wyoming, top drivers of vulnerability for Chronic Disease

Figure 3. Eight-Mile Wyoming, top drivers of vulnerability for Chronic Disease 

Both Michigan communities will face similar climate challenges, but residents in a less vulnerable community, like Ferndale, are more equipped to take actions, like purchasing a back-up generator, to prepare for worsening storms and the decline of aging infrastructure. Residents in a community like Eight Mile-Wyoming may not have the resources to prepare for, adapt and recover from the effects of climate change. 

More extreme weather and storms will only exacerbate existing inequalities if we do not take appropriate action to address these disparities. A historic level of funding is now available through the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to build toward climate justice, but resources must flow to where they are most urgently needed.  

See what risks your community faces and ways to address them at climatevulnerabilityindex.org.   

This blog was co-authored by Aurora Barone, Senior Economics and Policy Analyst and Margerie Snider, Federal Climate Innovation Graduate Intern at EDF.

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