Carnegie Mellon University

elderly woman looking out sunny window

August 09, 2023

Examining Inequities: How Rising Temperatures Exacerbate Vulnerability in Elderly and Low-Income Groups

jones.pngNews headlines this summer have been dominated by weather events fueled by climate change. And while the focus has been mostly on major damage caused by storms and impacts of extreme heat, other less visible people are being significantly impacted. PhD student Andrew Jones’ research is focused on helping these individuals by bringing climate change’s impacts on vulnerable groups to light.

“In a warming climate, the need for household cooling has important implications when considering the distribution of climate change impacts for vulnerable groups such as low-income, the elderly, and minorities,” he says. Jones sought additional information to understand better how rising temperatures will impact these populations.

His research was completed in collaboration with CEE’s Destenie Nock and Costa Samaras as well as the University of Maryland’s Yueming (Lucy) Qiu and Bo Xing from the Salt River Project. 

Jones and the research team utilized energy data from Phoenix, Arizona, one of the country's hottest areas. “We used smart-meter data to develop individualized household equations that relate electricity use to outdoor temperatures.” They extrapolated the information to simulate future electricity use behavior, incorporating projected daily temperatures from global climate models. 

Jones discovered that the median elderly and low-income household’s cooling behavior could be disproportionately impacted by rising summertime average temperatures–more than their middle-aged and high-income neighbors. The inequity was calculated using a study previously published by Nock that showed that elderly and low-income households have higher cooling balance points than their counterparts. 

“We also found that low-income households' share of their income spent on their energy bill remains unaffordable. Even with AC efficiency improvements, low-income households can experience a greater share of their income being spent on their energy needs,” Jones says.

Even with AC efficiency improvements, low-income households can experience a greater share of their income being spent on their energy needs

These findings quantify how existing structural inequalities can be perpetuated by climate change without interventions. The research concluded that incorporating air conditioning efficiency upgrades could lessen the financial burden of keeping these households cooler. The upgrades could hold the rate of income spent on summer energy needs to less than 14%, which—while still significant—is a 2% reduction from the scenario without efficiency improvements. 

“The team and I are excited to start work on modeling additional interventions, such as rooftop solar adoption, weatherization, and subsidies, to assess whether and to what extent they can reduce household energy burden.” He believes that connecting with communities will help his team to get a better understanding of the limitations and shortcomings our analysis. “It is vital to acknowledge the expertise of lived experiences and how, when working alongside the community, they can enhance our modeling approach and future policy recommendations to reflect the concerns of those we are working alongside.”

Jones hopes that the findings will inform and support decision-making at the state and federal level while helping combat inequality and climate change's impact on vulnerable populations. He plans to continue his work to keep cooling costs down in a world impacted by rising temperatures. “In the future, I hope to investigate climate interventions that can help households reduce their energy burden.”