Sharon L. Harlan

Professor of Sociology and Health Sciences, Northeastern University
Areas of Expertise:
  • Climate Change
  • Energy
  • Environment

Connect with Sharon

About Sharon

Harlan’s research explores the socially unequal impacts of climate change, focusing on exposure to excessively hot outdoor and indoor temperatures as a significant and increasingly critical threat to human health and well-being in cities.  She studies the environmental factors, such as lack of vegetation, open spaces, and air conditioning, which produce elevated risks for people in low-income and minority neighborhoods.  Her approach is interdisciplinary, integrating social theories about the historical production of environmental injustices with data and models from the ecological, geospatial, and health sciences. She also led the development of a longitudinal survey in the Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area on environmental attitudes and behaviors and has published widely on these topics as well as the epidemiology of heat and the development of a socio-spatial heat vulnerability index.  


The Quest for Climate Justice in an Unequal World



"Neighborhood Microclimates and Vulnerability to Heat Stress" (with Anthony J. Brazela, Lela Prashada, William L. Stefanovb, and Larissa Larsenc). Social Science & Medicine 63, no. 11 (2006): 2847-2863.

Estimates an outdoor human thermal comfort index as a function of local climate variables collected in 8 diverse city neighborhoods during the summer of 2003 in Phoenix, Arizona.  Argues that urban heat island reduction policies should specifically target residential areas with fewer social and material resources to cope with heat and take into account equitable distribution and preservation of environmental resources, such as trees, parks, and open spaces.

"In the Shade of Affluence: The Inequitable Distribution of the Urban Heat Island" (with Anthony J. Brazel, G. Darrel Jenerette, Nancy S. Jones, Larissa Larsen, Lela Prashad, and William L. Stefanov). Research in Social Problems and Public Policy 15 (2008): 173-202.

Argues that the urban heat island is an unintended consequence of humans building upon rural and native landscapes, changing land cover and land use patterns in ways that raise temperatures in cities.  Suggests that affluent whites were more likely to live in vegetated and less climatically stressed neighborhoods than low-income Latinos in Phoenix, Arizona.

"Climate Change and Health in Cities: Impacts of Heat and Air Pollution and Potential Co- Benefits from Mitigation and Adaptation" (with Darren M. Ruddell). Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 3, no. 3 (2011): 126-134.

Discusses health concerns related to global climate change, urban heat islands, and air pollution in cities, as well as the health co-benefits that are realized when cities adopt mitigation and adaptation policies for climate change.

"Neighborhood Effects on Heat Deaths: Social and Environmental Predictors of Vulnerability in Maricopa County, Arizona" (with Juan H. Declet-Barreto, William L. Stefanov, and Diana B. Petitti). Environmental Health Perspectives 121, no. 2 (2013): 197-204.

Identifies clusters of neighborhoods with the highest vulnerability scores and argues that a large proportion of heat deaths occurred among people (including homeless persons) who lived in the inner cores of several cities and along an industrial corridor.

"Climate Injustice and Inequality: Insights from Sociology" (with David N. Pellow, J. Timmons Roberts, Shannon Elizabeth Bell, William G. Holt, and Joane Nagel), in Sociological Perspectives on Climate Change, edited by Riley E. Dunlap and Robert J. Brulle (Oxford University Press, 2015), 127-163.

Discusses how disparities in power, wealth, and privilege are central to understanding the causes and impacts of climate change. Argues for grassroots-driven adaptations and envisions a worldwide transition to renewable, safe energy, with underrepresented groups taking part in negotiated shifts.

In the News

Sharon L. Harlan's research on building sustainable cities discussed in Brandon Keim. Sharon L. Harlan, "Environmental Gap Widens in Phoenix," Wired Science, December 1, 2011.
"Just Deserts," Sharon L. Harlan, International Innovation, January 1, 2013.
Sharon L. Harlan's research on on urban hot spots discussed in "Summertime: Hot Time in the City," National Science Foundation Discovery, June 21, 2013.
Sharon L. Harlan's research on urban heat islands discussed in Jerry Adler. Sharon L. Harlan, "The Reality of a Hotter Summer is Already Here," Smithsonian Magazine, May 1, 2014.