Heat leads the charge on climate change

Extreme heat is moving the needle on climate change. Heat kills far more people than any other weather event and is a force multiplier of chronic disease. 

Miami, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Melbourne, and Athens are among the cities that have recently installed “chief heat officers” to create public warning systems, expand green spaces and build “cooling centers,” among other measures. In Spain, Seville may soon name and categorize heat waves so that people can prepare as they would for hurricanes. 

Heat is real and palpable

At a September 29 Ethnic Media Services briefing on the dangers of extreme heat, the City of Miami Chief Heat Officer Jane Gilbert shared the results of a study about top climate change concerns for the county’s most vulnerable communities. The CBO coalition that ran the surveys and focus groups found it wasn’t sea level rise or hurricane risk.

“It was extreme heat,” said Gilbert, because people were living with it daily at work and at home. “They grappled with the burden of the utility bills, AC breaking down in July and not being able to replace or fix it, waiting at a bus stop too long and ending up at an emergency room, not being able to take the kids to the playground, or the children getting ill at summer camp. All of this is what they were living and experiencing.”

Before Marta Segura took office as Los Angeles Heat Officer in 2022, heat was not regarded as a primary climate hazard. “But now,” she clarified, “it is seen as a huge part of every single one of those plans which means we will maximize our resources and maximize our investments to mitigate heat and climate change in the city of Los Angeles.” 

President steps in with federal support

In a statement released in July, President Biden noted that extreme heat costs America one billion dollars a year. “I don’t know anyone who honestly believes that climate change is not a problem,” he said, referring to a Phoenix woman who fell off her wheelchair and had third-degree burns after laying on the ground for five minutes, and of Californian farm workers harvesting at night to avoid the heat.

Biden asked the Department of Labor to issue the first-ever hazard alert for heat and announced new investments to protect communities. The Department of Labor will ramp up enforcement of heat-safety violations, increasing inspections in high-risk industries like construction and agriculture.

Biden noted some 600 people die from extreme heat each year – “more than from floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes in America combined.”

A infographic about combating heat
How to combat heat (image courtesy: CDC)

A $152 million investment to combat heat

The Department of the Interior is investing $152 million from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to expand water storage and enhance climate resilience in California, Colorado, and Washington. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is investing up to $7 million from President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act to improve our nation’s weather forecasts.

$50 billion was allocated through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda to help Americans become more resilient to climate impacts like heat waves. 

“The federal government is working with us on heat resilience,” said Gilbert. “There is an understanding that this is an issue we have to face, so there was an increase in budget allocation towards heat management and building heat resilience,” she said.

Less support at the state level

However, there is not much support at the state level in Florida said Gilbert. “We have tried to pass worker protection standards at the state level in Florida that have not gone through. We are now working at the local level.” Because the invisible nature of heat can make it difficult to track down and protect the most at-risk populations, worker protection has become a politically charged issue,” said Gilbert.”It’s not like with a hurricane, or a storm surge, or a forest fire, where you know where the damage is. An elderly single woman living alone in an apartment, we may not find her until it’s too late.” 

Local governments step up

The heat season is now from mid-June to mid-November, but the U.S. has been slow to react to the threat of rising temperatures,” said Segura. Her biggest concern is “how we get from policy to implementation in a coordinated fashion so that we can have accountability.” 

The country has few federal regulations to protect Americans from the heat, including cooling standards for buildings and protections for outdoor workers. That leaves much of the challenge of protecting the public to local governments warned Segura.“We need to modify our cities’ infrastructure to adapt to extreme heat in order to have livable cities, habitable cities, walkable cities.” 

“There is a governance gap for heat at all levels of government, county, state, federal,” said David Hondula, Director of the Office of Heat Response and Mitigation in Phoenix. State governments must step up their commitment. because they are critical to helping the country as a whole achieve its climate goals.

Heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable. 

Ritu Marwah is an award-winning author ✍️ and a recognized Bay Area leader in the field of 🏛 art and literature. She won the 2023 Ethnic Media Services award for outstanding international reporting;...