Extreme weather events unfairly affect marginalized groups, Oregon Health Authority says

By Brian Bull (KLCC)
July 3, 2023 12 p.m.

Climate change disproportionately affects communities of color, the elderly, people with disabilities and low-income households.

That conclusion is from a new report by the Oregon Health Authority, which looked at weather trends from the last two years, and determined extreme events like heat waves, wildfires, and drought unfairly affected marginalized groups.


For example, OHA says from May to August 2021, there were 242% more heat-related illness visits to ERs and urgent care centers than in 2020. And 59% of patients seen for heat-related illnesses in Oregon in 2021 came from areas with a median household income under $50,000.

One person not surprised by the findings is Jerrel Brown, environmental justice organizer for the Eugene-Springfield NAACP. He said low-income people are often at the mercy of the elements.

Thousands of area youth climate activists and supporters marched through downtown Portland, May 20, 2022, as part of a youth-led climate mobilization demanding city leaders take meaningful action on climate change.

Thousands of area youth climate activists and supporters marched through downtown Portland, May 20, 2022, as part of a youth-led climate mobilization demanding city leaders take meaningful action on climate change.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

“They are the canary in the coal mine for the negative effects that pop up for those who can’t afford to pay their way out of it, so to speak,” Brown told KLCC. “You are likely to be in a situation where you (have) less resources available to combat any of these issues.”

The NAACP is working on policy change, as well as helping hard-up homes get access to things like affordable air conditioning units.


OHA’s Climate and Health in Oregon 2021-2022 report was released on June 22. The agency affirms findings of its 2020 report that showed climate events more severally affected communities of color, Native American tribes, lower incomes households, older adults, people with disabilities, outdoor workers, and under- or uninsured Oregonians.

“Heat waves occur from time to time as a result of natural variability. But human-caused climate change, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, is contributing to the intensity of extreme weather events here and around the globe,” Oregon Public Health Director Rachael Banks explained in the report. “Due to climate change, nearly the entire state will need to prepare for steady increases in extreme heat over the next several decades.”

OHA issued its first Climate and Health in Oregon report in 2020. Its latest one is a combined report for both 2021 and 2022. The agency said no report was issued last year due to staffing issues tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its release, OHA says its Climate and Health in Oregon 2021-2022 report highlights several high-profile extreme climate events that caused spikes in hospitalizations and deaths over the last two years, including:

  • Two heat waves during the summer of 2021 caused more than 100 deaths, including an agricultural worker in St. Paul and a construction worker in Hillsboro. Most of those who died were older adults, isolated or living with low incomes.
  • For 2021 and 2022 combined, Black/African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic and other non-white populations had a disproportionately high percentage of heat-related deaths compared with non-heat-related deaths.
  • Wildfire smoke in central and southern Oregon in 2021 caused people in Bend, Klamath Falls and Medford to experience a combined 83 days with air at or above levels considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, compared with 41 days in 2020 and 11 days in 2022. Several counties also saw 20% higher asthma-like illness visits to emergency departments and urgent care centers compared with 2020.
  • Severe drought, which can have long-term effects on agriculture as well as drinking and recreational water quality, affected almost every county during 2021 and 2022. All Oregon counties had some area in the abnormally dry to extreme drought range as of September 2022; more than a quarter of the state experienced exceptional drought conditions at some point in the last year.
  • In November 2022 in Klamath County, many homes had no running water, as 461 domestic wells went dry or were slow to refill. Thirteen public water systems in 2021 experienced low water supply, compared with eight between 2016 and 2020. In 2022, there were 14 public water systems experiencing low water supply.

Signs of hope in OHA’s report

The OHA says investments by Oregon lawmakers over the last three years have supported climate and health resilience, such as:

  • Public health modernization directed more than $43 million to community-based organizations and local public health authorities to address community-identified priorities, including environmental health risks and climate adaptation strategies.
  • The Healthy Homes grant program within OHA provides $10 million in funding to help Oregonians make their home environments more resilient to climate and weather impacts.
  • About $4.8 million in funding to modernize public health systems that serve Tribes and American Indian/Alaskan Native people in Oregon, including those that promote environmental health, emergency preparedness and traditional ecological knowledge.
  • The 2022 renewal of Oregon’s Medicaid waiver application allows coverage of climate change-related expenses, such as air conditioners and air filters, for certain low-income patients under the Oregon Health Plan.

OHA invites people to learn more at