Three communities in the United States now have officials dedicated to managing extreme heat—Phoenix, Los Angeles and Miami-Dade County. But that means 19,000 communities do not, according to a leading researcher, and many of those probably couldn’t afford one.
Officials in many of those communities recognize the problem of extreme heat, said Ladd Keith, a professor of planning and sustainable built environments at the University of Arizona, but they may not recognize all the ways they can address it.
“A lot of communities are gravitating towards thinking that urban forestry and cool roofs and cooling centers are the three things that will save our cities from heat,” Keith said, “and those are three important components, but we have to we have to think holistically about everything that cities are actually doing and not just look for silver bullets to solve all of our problems.”
For example, he said, every new development can either increase the urban-heat effect in its host city or decrease it. “So we need to just consider heat as a climate risk like we do with flood and wildfire and just integrate it into our daily decision making processes.”
Keith spoke last week at a seminar hosted by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a non-profit founded by members of Congress to inform federal policy, and Keith sees a similar need on the federal level to pay everyday attention to extreme heat.
“We have millions of dollars already going out for Department of Transportation infrastructure projects,” Keith said. “Each of those should be considering the heat equity components of it. Are those new roadways decreasing heat or increasing heat? Are those new transportation systems equitable and available to all modes of transportation or do they force people into automobiles that exacerbate climate change and increase the urban heat that would affect you?”
Heat is the number one cause of weather-related deaths, said Dan Bresette, executive director. The CDC estimates about 700 Americans die of heat-induced causes every year. But those numbers are likely underreported, added Sonal Jaisal, director of policy for Environmental Justice, because deaths triggered by heat are often recorded as heart attacks, strokes, or other types of mortality.
The effects are felt most in vulnerable communities: the poor, the elderly, renters, outdoor workers, underserved and less affluent populations. Jaisal sees the same dichotomy of concerns there.
There are “short-term responses,” she said, such as “providing cooling, subsidizing utility bills, having adaptive measures, (things) like having misters, and making sure there’s people doing community outreach around extreme heat safety.
“Those types of things are outlined in our agenda,” Jaisal said, “but what’s also outlined in our agenda are long-term, high-impact solutions such as electrifying low-income housing and subsidizing the cost of electrifying low-income housing, switching out fossil-fuel energy for renewable energy to lower utility bills, provide a more resilient energy system, and ultimately reduce air pollution.
“We also believe that office buildings that are not in use should not be able to set their temperatures to 68 degrees,” she said. “We do think there needs to be better communications and better warning systems around extreme heat.”