Heat, Dust & Death: What The Drought Could Bring This Summer

Drought Monitor – Caifornia

California could be in for a devastating summer.

Heatwaves are increasing in frequency, intensity, and duration, and, as temperatures rise, climate change activists are concerned that inaction could lead to more deaths in the summer. 

Its severe intensity puts the drought in the top tier historically, surpassing the 2016 drought considered the worst in California’s history. 

“Ultimately, there’s just less water available on the landscape, which means that the soils become drier and the vegetation becomes drier. It means that plants require more water, but there is less water in rivers, lakes, and streams available to humans, the environment, and agriculture. This means that there is less capacity of the atmosphere to buffer against extreme heatwaves,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

“This will be an *exceptionally dangerous* heatwave from a public health perspective, especially since this is a part of the country where structures are not designed to shed heat and where air conditioning is rare. Infrastructure/power disruption is also possible,” tweeted Swain, as an extreme heatwave unfolded along the West Coast of North America, centered on the Pacific Northwest and southwestern Canada.

(From left to right: Dr. Daniel Swain, Climate Scientist, UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability; Dr. Kristie L. Ebi, Professor, Center for Health and the Global Environment; Aradhna Tripati, Associate Professor, UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.)

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) climate change is speeding up. Wildfires are bigger, heat waves more frequent, and seas are warmer.

At a briefing organized by Ethnic Media Services on June 18th, experts pointed at data tracking the impact of climate change on the U.S. and worldwide, and warned that the best way to address the climate crisis is with scientific models as well as with policies focused on equity. 

In the current decade, almost 12,000 premature deaths are recorded annually in the contiguous United States, though experts suggest this is an undercount. Almost all of the deaths are preventable.

Heat and higher temperatures kill, and the poor and disadvantaged are at a higher risk. Low-income families cannot afford to move after a natural disaster; they generally live in asphalt or concrete jungles and lack green space, making them vulnerable to the dangers of heat.

“Redlining has made a big impact on the climate and temperature of certain areas. These are the areas where people who are poor and marginalized live. There are fewer trees, less airflow and the structure of those urban environments is such that they tend to be hotter, “ said  Dr. Kristie L. Ebi, Professor, Center for Health and the Global Environment, University of Washington, and co-author of a new report on the impact of rising heat on mortality

Climate models show that climate change deals a tougher hand to low-income and minority ethnic groups, added Aradhna E. Tripati, Associate Professor, UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. As fires rage in the town of Paradise for example, “some people may move as they have multiple homes but that is not everybody,” said Tripati. Groups with insufficient resources have more difficulty dealing with the effects of climate change. 

“Any injustices that exist will interact with other inequities in ways that will be particularly devastating for low-income communities and communities of color,” said Tripati, citing the disproportionate impact on marginalized groups by hurricanes like Maria and Katrina or the Paradise wildfires in California.

She believes that ethnic minorities who historically are more adept at dealing with scant resources and have developed workarounds should be invited to participate in making climate change decisions and environmental protection policies.  

Effective solutions come naturally to people who come from hot areas, said Tripathi. 

“Actions we can take to reduce our core body temperatures must be taken. Self-dowsing i.e. wetting your skin and turning on the fan are highly effective”, said Dr. Kristie L. Ebi. When heatwave early warning systems alert people to prepare for such events, “Make sure to look in on your neighbors to ensure they are hydrated and their environment has good air circulation.” 

Additionally, said Ebi, mortality is impacted not just by the temperature but our development choices – for example, green roofs and environments with good air circulation work when temperatures are high. Air conditioning causes urban heat islands. Anything we can do to reduce these islands will help people keep their core body temperatures down during heatwaves.

Judicious and equitable choices in planning cities and our living environment are critical to managing the heat that is coming, concluded Dr. Ebi.


Ritu Marwah is a 2020 California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.
Image credit: Daniel Swain

Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor at India Currents.


 

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