Morgan Stanley
  • Institute for Sustainable Investing
  • Sep 16, 2022

Protecting Vulnerable Communities in a Warming World

Leaders around the world, from both the public and private sectors, must tackle climate change together to protect the populations at risk from extreme heat.

The summer of 2022 illustrated the dangers of record-breaking heat, as millions of people faced life-threatening temperatures, rivers were turned into mudflats and wildfires consumed forests.1 In the U.K. alone, heat waves forced schools to close and even melted airport runways.2 It’s clear that this year’s Climate Week, an opportunity for global leaders to come together in conjunction with the UN General Assembly in New York and commit to driving large-scale climate action, is arriving at a critical moment.

While extreme heat threatens the entire planet, its effects will not be distributed equally. The risks associated with extreme heat vary tremendously based on the built environment around people. The number of paved surfaces that absorb heat, the amount of tree covering to provide shade, the size of buildings that can prevent heat from escaping the streets and the quality of housing can all make a major difference in whether heat is uncomfortable or dangerous. In U.S. cities, remnants of discriminatory redlining policies and underinvestment in community resources are important reasons why the worsening impacts of extreme heat are disproportionately felt by lower-incomes families and communities of color. In fact, areas with higher rates of poverty can have average temperatures as much as 4⁰C, or 7⁰F, hotter than wealthier neighborhoods.3

The same is true on a global scale, where people living in lower-income countries are already 40% more likely to experience extreme temperatures than those living in higher-income countries, with the gap expected to widen in the coming years.4 And to date, these communities have largely been excluded from important conversations and policy decisions around climate that affect their own lives.

Leaders around the world must act now to protect the most vulnerable and avoid increasingly catastrophic outcomes. That is why Morgan Stanley mobilizes capital markets for solutions that support diverse communities and a more sustainable future. One way that the firm has aimed to facilitate climate action for at-risk populations is through the Morgan Stanley Sustainable Solutions Collaborative, now in its second year, which taps the most innovative and systemic sustainability concepts to receive grants and a year-long partnership with the firm for growth and scale. 

From Community Storytelling to City Forests and Governments

ISeeChange, one of this year’s Collaborative grant recipients, is a New Orleans-based data and community engagement platform that lets users share real-time photos, stories and data on extreme weather events, which has helped illustrate how rising temperatures disproportionately impact low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. “We’ve seen extreme heat vary in cities anywhere from 10 to 20 degrees between neighborhoods that are just blocks apart,” says ISeeChange founder and CEO Julia Kumari Drapkin. “What might be an uncomfortable day for residents of one wealthier neighborhood could very well be deadly for people living in a lower-income neighborhood just blocks away.”

Trees As Infrastructure, a member of the 2021 Collaborative cohort, is another organization tracking and addressing the impact of extreme heat in cities. An open-source platform by UK-based Dark Matter Labs, Trees AI measures the environmental and economic benefits of trees in cities, such as reducing carbon dioxide levels, and it helps finance urban forest restoration at scale.

In the public sector, one recent and promising action is the creation of the Chief Heat Officer governmental role in some major global cities to address rising temperatures and raise awareness about extreme heat risks. In Miami, Florida; Athens, Greece; and Freetown, Sierra Leone, to name a few cities, officials are responsible for preparing their communities for the challenges ahead and protecting their cities’ most vulnerable residents from the realities of a warming world. Chief Heat Officers will be key for equitable climate action.

Protecting at-risk communities is not something policymakers or organizations like ISeeChange and TreesAI can do alone. Investors, businesses and civil society leaders need to pitch in to help scale resilient solutions to extreme heat for all. This is true for every sustainability challenge we face today, from shortages in natural resources to extreme weather events, from emissions reductions to improved social and economic equality.

This Climate Week, stakeholders across the private and public sectors should take this opportunity to come together and find ways to scale long-term, resilient heat solutions for the world’s most vulnerable communities so that they are also financially and physically resilient. This means cross-sector coordination and available capital for solutions such as:

  • affordable and accessible cooling infrastructure
  • utility assistance programs
  • “weatherization” programs that make buildings more energy-efficient
  •  upgraded energy infrastructure
  •  more widespread urban tree canopies and
  • more robust emergency preparedness capabilities.

If the world is to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement—and do so in a way that is equitable—leaders must work together to protect our most vulnerable from an inhospitable climate.