"It's a huge issue for us and the neighborhood," added Philip Giffee, executive director of Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, a community organization in East Boston. "It is hard for people to think of what it's going to be like in 30 years when they are worried about feeding their family the next day."
Kim Foltz works on building and environmental issues for the organization and is a nine-year resident of East Boston. The stakes, she said, are different for those without money.
"We have lots of undocumented immigrants, who have a lot of social vulnerability to something like devastating flooding in East Boston.
"If you are working two jobs, and all of a sudden your transportation is cut off and you can't get to your job for a couple of days, it might be the end of your job. If you are an immigrant, your only option might be to go back home," she said.
In many cases, the poor are simply in the wrong place, historically situated in low, flood-prone, economically cheaper areas. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans' poor Ninth Ward because it was the lowest neighborhood in the city; the floods last year on the Mississippi River repeated that pattern among the poor.
But the effects of such disasters extend past the immediate loss, said Jennifer Leaning, a professor of health and human rights at the Harvard School of Public Health.
"The wealthy and middle class are equally vulnerable to the immediate water effects," she said. "But they will have so many other resources in terms of getting out of the way and restarting. The poor are going to be trapped with having lost everything – including family members – and will have no money or resources" to recover.
During Katrina, many poor had no access to transportation, often did not hear warnings in time, and did not have the experience or confidence to leave; many never had been more than five miles outside of New Orleans, she said. The poor are less likely to have insurance, savings to help them recoup, or even a safe place to keep important documents.
"Poverty really makes a difference in one's ability to survive these events," said Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. "It impacts the ability of people to adapt individually through purchasing an air-conditioner, locating an air-conditioned space, having a car to transport them away, or having connections to others who can help them get over a disaster."
As the public debate shifts from the diminishing possibility of avoiding climate change to adapting to its consequences, some steps are being considered to help the poor.
Rachel Morello-Frosch, a researcher at University of California, Berkeley, led a 2009 study on the "climate gap." She said attention to the issue helped prompt a proposal now before the California legislature to earmark funds from the state's carbon cap program for low-income and hazard-prone communities.
"We have to acknowledge certain communities are more vulnerable" than others, she said.
James Hunt, chief of environment and energy services for Boston, says climate change will be a challenge throughout the city, half of which is built on filled tidal lands. Officials are trying to make sure poorer neighborhoods are not neglected in planning for soaring city summer heat and other consequences, he said.
"If our temperatures continue to rise at this rate and our climate begins to look like New Jersey or Maryland, we will have an increase in 90-degree days and days with 100-plus temperatures," he said. "Overlap that in the inner city, where you have high density, fewer trees and higher asthma rates—that's a major health concern."