Global warming and worsening winters

Although climate change is largely bringing a rise in global average temperatures, it also makes local weather patterns, including winter weather, more erratic. Though this past winter was unusually warm, climate change, in some areas, is and will continue to bring more frequent and severe snowfall and extreme temperatures. In order to protect residents, especially historically marginalized communities which often bear the brunt of the effects of climate change, it’s important for urban, suburban, and rural communities alike to adapt to and mitigate the effects of these changes.

The sunsets behind two houses in a neighborhood covered in snow.
Photo courtesy of Al Gieryna on Flickr

Climate change, winter, and equity

Climate change’s disruptions of local weather patterns in the winter can result in heavy snowfall and bitter cold snaps in many areas of the U.S. These conditions present dangers to public health, even beyond hypothermia rates; a study found that, between 1985 and 2006, over 5% of temperature-related deaths in the U.S. were due to winter weather, compared to less than 0.5% for extreme heat events.

Historically marginalized communities are much more likely to experience the most severe impacts of climate change in winter weather, due to a legacy of systemic inequities. For example, during the polar vortex that Texas experienced in 2021, Black and Latino communities were the first to be afflicted by the rolling blackouts that affected the state. Additionally, they were more likely to be located in close proximity to polluting industrial sites, which emitted air pollutants in bursts as power returned.

Plus, because marginalized communities often live in energy-inefficient housing (where physical infrastructure like insulation is lacking) due to practices like redlining, they tend to experience disproportionately high energy burdens and are forced to spend significant portions of their income on energy bills.

The smart growth movement helps to create communities that are equitable, connected, and resilient, which can help alleviate some of the harmful impacts of redlining on BIPOC communities. By promoting dense, mixed-use, walkable, and transit-oriented development patterns, smart growth preserves greenspace and natural areas that can help filter out pollutants like those released during the Texas blackouts. Smart growth can also alleviate some of the chronic health problems that disproportionately impact BIPOC communities and are exacerbated by winter conditions, including respiratory and cardiovascular issues, by promoting active transportation. This both directly improves physical health at an individual level and improves ambient air quality by reducing automobile use.

Climate change, winter, and land use

The effects of harsher winters can be exacerbated by some communities’ land use policies. Restrictive zoning regulations that create and maintain sprawling, low-density land use centered on detached single-family housing force people to travel farther to reach daily needs and amenities. In the winter, that means people are exposed to winter weather conditions for longer. And, because these pro-sprawl policies have made and continue to make housing unaffordable, more people end up without access to safe, quality housing. These groups are among the most vulnerable to the effects of winter weather, especially because adequate shelter and resources are not universally available, particularly in rural areas.

To protect residents, zoning codes can be reformed to encourage dense, mixed-use, and multi-family communities. When friends, family, jobs, and amenities are located nearer to where people live, they spend less time exposed to winter conditions when traveling to them. And, because housing units in multifamily buildings tend to be smaller and share walls, ceilings, and floors, they have less space requiring heating and are better insulated from the cold air outside, which reduces residents’ energy bills (and their household carbon emissions too).

A beige house covered in snow.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Seaman on Flickr.

Climate change, winter, and transportation

Winter weather already impacts many communities’ transportation infrastructure. In some areas, car-centric transport systems are justified partly due to the notion that driving in the winter is safer than walking, biking, or using public transit. However, traveling by active and public transportation is usually dangerous because of inadequate infrastructure, not because of winter conditions. For example, small sidewalks and a lack of bike lanes force people walking or biking into close proximity with vehicles, which, although dangerous year round, is especially hazardous in the winter when visibility may be limited. Infrequent or nonexistent public transit and unsheltered transit stops expose users to winter weather for long, potentially dangerous periods of time. These dangers are amplified by policies that prioritize the clearing of snow from roads while leaving sidewalks, transit stops, and micromobility stations covered.

These car-centric transport systems essentially force people to drive in winter weather. But driving still isn’t safe—the U.S. experiences nearly half a million crashes and more than 2,000 deaths on roadways every winter. Communities that put non-car transportation systems on equal footing, allowing people to safely walk, bike, or use public transit, find that residents take advantage. In Montreal, for example, where snowplows clear bike lanes, winter bike trips are a common mode of transportation.

People stand under a covered bus stop where snow is piled up from being plowed.
Photo courtesy of John W. Iwanski on Flickr

Adapting to changing winters

Several federal, state, and local programs, including the Weatherization Assistance Programs, provide funding for the weatherization of energy-inefficient housing. This means that residents who pay high energy bills due to the physical infrastructure of their housing, like poor insulation, can reduce their energy bills by making their heating (and cooling) systems more effective.

For households looking to move away from natural gas heating systems entirely, which is being incentivized by state and federal governments to reduce carbon emissions from buildings, electrical heat pumps can provide energy-efficient heating even in extremely cold temperatures. But large-scale installations, which are already facing difficulties due to the lack of a qualified workforce, will require workforce training for professionals in the HVAC industry. These workforce development programs must center equity, in part by focusing on historically marginalized communities and those likely to face difficulties during the green transition.

And, as covered before, smart growth strategies for land use and transportation can play a big role in helping communities prepare for these new winters. These strategies can help ensure people’s health are better prepared for winter conditions, can shelter people from winter conditions at home and while on the go, and can ensure people are able to reach amenities without experiencing dangerous travel conditions.

Climate Change