What’s Hiking Up the Heat

Sam Pizzigati says inequality is missing from the coverage of what’s driving the mercury higher. 

Sunset Heatwave. (Bill Smith, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

By Sam Pizzigati 

The heat. Never been hotter in our lifetimes. This past spring the mercury nearly hit 124 in the Pakistani city of Jacobabad, “just below,” notes science writer David Wallace-Wells, “the conventional estimate for the threshold of human survival.”

This summer’s U.S. daily high temperatures are continuing our torrid global pace. America’s media have been teeming over recent weeks with stats on heat horrors.

In Phoenix, “a sprawling urban heat island,” daily highs have averaged well over 100 all summer long. The National Weather Service in interior Northern California last month warned that record high temperatures had placed the “the entire population” at risk.


Oregon’s governor, around the same time, pointed to the “imminent threat” of wildfires the heat had created and declared a state of emergency. California, meanwhile, declared a statewide grid emergency “to cope with surging demand for power amid a blistering heat wave.” Sacramento then promptly registered 116, “its highest-ever recorded temperature.”

Widespread news coverage of records like these might well be focusing people’s attention on climate change more than any environmentalist rally ever could. But what’s alarmingly missing in most all this coverage? Any consideration of the inequality connection.

The inequality of modern American life turns out to be not just determining who’s suffering the most from all the heat. Inequality is actually driving the mercury higher, as new research out of New York is rather dramatically detailing.

A “street-level assessment of heat in New York City” — the first one — has found that temperatures in the city’s low-income South Bronx run 8 degrees higher than temperatures a few miles away in the high-income neighborhoods of Manhattan’s Upper West and East Sides.

Bronx Laundromat, August 2016. (Paul Sableman, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

How does economic inequality help generate such wide temperature differentials? At a most basic level, the rich and powerful can and do use their wealth and power to shunt the most undesirable aspects of modern life onto poor neighborhoods. The undesirable consequences include higher temperatures for the neighborhoods where low-income families live.

Transportation plays a key role here. Five major highways — the notorious Cross Bronx Expressway among them — cut through and encircle the South Bronx. These high-traffic corridors spew contaminants into the air and deny South Bronx residents access to heat-relieving green and “blue” — public waterfront — spaces. In the South Bronx, these spaces barely even exist. [Although the borough overall has the most parkland of any in the city] the area [around the expressway] has about only one park per every 60,000 residents.

Map of Cross Bronx Expressway. (Chinissai, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

In New York’s most affluent neighborhoods, streets themselves can actually become park-like when they sport plenty of tree cover. The vast majority of the South Bronx has no tree cover, and that absence — coupled with asphalt everywhere — nurtures heat pockets that compound air pollution. And the South Bronx’s old housing stock leaves residents few escapes from all this bad air and heat.

One result: The Bronx overall commands just 17 percent of New York City’s population but 95 percent of the city’s hospitalizations for asthma.

Community activists in the advocacy group South Bronx Unite are working to overturn these sorts of deadly social and environmental dynamics. They’ve proposed, for instance, a plan “to provide 100,000+ people access to a public waterfront that, for decades, has been inaccessible.”

Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York City. (angela n., Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

New York’s powers-that-be, over the years, have allocated that waterfront to operations that service the city’s affluent, everything from printing presses for The Wall Street Journal to warehouses for companies like Fresh Direct, a food delivery service that sends out “approximately 1,000 daily diesel truck trips a day.”

Activists are also working to offset the incredible environmental damage that comes from the heavy daily traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway, where the rumblings of 300 diesel trucks every hour are fouling the air and leaving the South Bronx ever hotter. They’re pushing for an ambitious project that, notes the Columbia University Millman School of Public Health, “would add a deck on top of below-grade sections of the Cross Bronx Expressway, with filtered vents to scrub exhaust.”

Atop the deck, under the project plan, would go a green park “along the lines of projects already completed in Boston, Dallas, and Seattle.”

Building out such an effort, Millman School analysts believe, would cost some $750 million. Too unreachably ambitious a price-tag?

Maybe not. New York City, Forbes reported this past spring, now boasts more billionaires “than any other city on the planet.” The city’s 107 billionaire residents have a combined net worth of $640 billion. A 1-percent annual wealth tax on that combined fortune would raise over eight times the cost of the proposed cap-the-Cross-Bronx-Expressway project in just one year.

Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970.  Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.

This article is from Inequality.org.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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6 comments for “What’s Hiking Up the Heat

  1. rosemerry
    September 16, 2022 at 03:58

    Since the USA seems to think “defense” means spending lots of money on weapons and invading/destroying any rivals or others who are not in the USA top tiers, this “democratic leader of the free world” or at least the alleged representatives of it will not allow the great mass of people anywhere on the globe to have access even to basic necessities. The “evil enemies” Russia and China wanting some sort of cooperation and sharing are considered hardly human.

  2. robert e williamson jr
    September 15, 2022 at 13:15

    Your last paragraph says all that needs to be said. How could the billionaire complain about doing so much good for so many.

    Social programs have much more to do with improving lives of the have-nots than socialism. Corporate socialism is already widely accepted by those same billionaires who claim to fear anything that benefits those who have little or nothing.

    Nice job Sam!

    Thanks CN

    • Vincent Berg
      September 15, 2022 at 15:38

      Replace NYC with Kiev (oh, excuse me, I mean Kyiv) and I could see it happening.

  3. Mathew Carpenter
    September 15, 2022 at 11:50

    This of course is the con-game of the Progressives.
    They write up these pipe-dream articles of stuff that will never happen, all based on the idea that a ‘wealth tax’ will pay for it. But of course, the ‘wealth tax’ will never happen.

    Especially because when Push Comes to Shove, these same Progressives will never actually fight for it. Or did I miss the month where the Progressive Chair of the Senate Budget Committee held up all the rest of Biden’s pro-corporate, $Billion give-aways in order to really wage a determined fight for a ‘wealth tax’?

    Progressives are all talk. Because actually waging a fight would disturb their millionaire lives and their cushy 6-figure jobs masquerading as the ‘voice of the people’. They might even see the value of their investment portfolios decline. Gasp! Those jobs depend on them not actually making the oligarchs mad, and thus keeping all of their ‘fights’ at the ‘just-for-show’ level.

    That way they can still enjoy their gourmet food and fine wines with rich friends in air conditioned comfort.

    • robert e williamson jr
      September 15, 2022 at 15:38

      So let me get this straight Mat, you are stereotyping all progressives as millionaires. Right?

      I’ m not so sure you have the right take. While I do agree the guy with a million plus dollars thinks unless he supports the neo-liberal policies of billionaires he might become an outcast of some sort, something I define as the “exceptional American”, and never become a billionaire himself or herself.

      Well to that I say “hogspit”. I’m not convinced all progressives are “greed heads”. When all greed heads become billionaires the millionaire will be the lesser to kick down at. And the billionaires will answer to the trillionaire.

      Seems as thought you are talking to the lame stream media personas who definitely prostitute themselves to the benefit of the billionaire media moguls. You get no argument from me there. But you are low on the wages they make, should be 7 figure incomes with current inflation rates. High priced whores no doubt, but with few honorable traits, sealed off in an environment the has cost them any understanding of just how the rest of us live. But whatever.

      I know one of these right wing MAGATs (Make American Great Again Trumpism . . . disiples). About 20 years ago he won 230k playing the lottery and parlayed it to a million at least. Luck, not work or values made him his money my good man. A guy who got lucky twice, winning the Lotto and having Dad strike oil.

      His dad has held out to his bitter end and now he has at least a couple of “money printing oil wells” and this guy runs around claiming all union leaders should be shot. Another example of a seriously deluded “Exceptional American”, MAGAT.

      thanks CN

  4. michael888
    September 15, 2022 at 06:44

    Biden (and Trump and Obama and Bush) will never allow a weath tax on billionaires. Those are the people who donate BIG MONEY to our political class.

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