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Same-Sex Couples Face Higher Climate Change Risks, New UCLA Study Shows

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Rainbow flags fly in front of San Francisco City Hall in San Francisco on June 26, 2013, shortly after a U.S. Supreme Court decision cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California.  (Noah Berger/AP Photo)

Same-sex couples have a significant risk of exposure to the adverse effects of climate change — wildfires, floods, smoke-filled skies, drought, etc. — compared to straight couples, according to a new report by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.

“Our research cuts against the narratives that LGBT people often live in safe pockets of coastal cities where they have access to all the resources that they need,” said Ari Shaw, study co-author, senior fellow and director of International Programs at the Williams Institute.

LGBTQ same-sex couples who live together frequently reside in coastal areas, large cities and places with infrastructure ill-equipped for climate-related disasters. All of this makes queer couples more vulnerable to climate hazards, Shaw said.

The authors found that San Francisco County, behind the District of Columbia, has the second-highest proportion of same-sex couples in the country and a relatively high risk of national hazards complicating life.

“San Francisco ranks among the highest in terms of its risk exposure to the effects of climate change,” Shaw said. “The experience of folks living in parts of the city that are more prone to flooding and these sorts of natural disasters is borne out in the data as well.”

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Knowing that LGBTQ people often live in concentrated urban areas like San Francisco is essential because Bay Area climate scientists recently found that human-caused climate change will cause atmospheric rivers to become 37% wetter by the end of the century. These storms can cause significant flooding, and KQED reporting from 2023 found that San Francisco’s infrastructure isn’t prepared for future storms.

On New Year’s Eve 2002, parts of San Francisco’s Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District flooded during an atmospheric river that swamped the region. The nearest grocery store to the area, Rainbow Grocery, also flooded.

‘Our findings probably understate the true impact’

The researchers relied on a mix of U.S. Census data and climate risk assessment data from NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Shaw said his team considered same-sex couples because the U.S. Census gathers information on cohabitating same-sex households but does not broadly collect sexual orientation or gender data.

A view of a residential neighborhood with a sandy coastline on the other side of a road.
A sandy path leads from Ocean Beach to the Great Highway and the Sunset District in San Francisco on Feb. 14, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“This study helps to shine a light on what is likely a much larger and more complicated picture,” he said. “Our findings probably understate the true impact that climate change is having on LGBTQ people.”

The new research moves the needle in helping the nation understand who is at risk of climate disasters, UC Irvine sociology professor Michael Méndez said. He previously studied how queer communities are often left out of disaster planning.

“The needle is moving slowly,” Méndez said. “These disasters are not happening in isolation. If an individual is feeling discrimination, or a lack of safety in their home and a disaster happens, they can feel even more vulnerable.”

But what Méndez said the study doesn’t reveal is who the same-sex couples are in terms of race, income and their positions in society.

“It could’ve gone a little further in terms of highlighting that, just because you’re LGBTQ and you’re in a geographic area that has a higher propensity for climate risks, does not necessarily make you socially vulnerable,” he said.

In February, Sen. Steve Padilla (D-San Diego) announced SB 990, which would establish best practices for state and local governments when addressing the needs of the LGBTQ community after a disaster.

“The values we have fought so hard to uphold cannot disappear at the first sight of trouble,” Padilla said in a press release.

Solutions are possible

The study authors recommend that policymakers, cities and providers ensure that disaster relief is accessible and given without discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

Solutions could include safe shelters, access to medication and financial aid for displaced LGBTQ people.

Because the study found that LGBTQ people often live in areas with poor infrastructure and lack resources to respond to climate change, the researchers suggest cities expand green spaces and enhance structural resilience.

“Policies should focus on mitigating discriminatory housing and urban development practices, making shelters safe spaces for LGBTQ people, and ensuring that relief aid reaches displaced LGBTQ individuals,” Shaw said.

Researchers also suggest that state and federal surveys, like the U.S. Census, need to include “measures of sexual orientation and gender identity to increase the scope and granularity of information available on LGBTQ people, including assessments of climate risk.”

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