Living With Extreme Heat – The Most Dangerous Climate Threat

SAN FRANCISCO, California — Of all the natural disasters the world currently faces, extreme heat is the most pernicious. Nearly 62,000 people died from record-breaking heat in Europe last summer, according to a study published this week in the scientific journal Nature. At least 279 people died due to heat in Texas in 2022, with similar data in other Southern states. And more than 2700 people were killed in a record breaking heatwave last summer in India and Pakistan.

At an Ethnic Media Services news briefing July 14, experts discussed the existential crisis of extreme heat in California, as well as strategies to protect its most vulnerable residents, including farmworkers who spend days toiling away in brutish conditions. One key strategy being implemented by the state and local municipalities is increasing the number of shade structures: more trees, awnings, bus shelters, as well as cooling facilities on public transportation.


V. Kelly Turner, Associate Director of Urban Environmental Research at UCLA: We know that that extreme heat is going to get longer and worse in the future. And then that’s made even worse by the way we build cities regionally. We put a lot of buildings and that creates what’s often called the urban heat island effect, which makes whole cities hotter than places that are not developed sometimes.

One of the most important things we can do to address extreme heat and inequity is to think more specifically about shade infrastructure. The way that people feel hot is from exposure to the sun. And so you can reduce temperatures on the body by about 30 to 40 degrees Celsius as measured by a composite metric that we use in our lab just by erecting a shade structure.

Most Californians are effectively living in shade deserts currently. We need to be really specific about settings like schools or residential or

transportation because different interventions are going to be needed in each setting. So in schools, for example, play yards need less asphalt and they need more shade to effectively address the heat issues that children are facing.

Dr. Lucía Abascal, Public Health Physician, California Department of Public Health: What are important things to consider when thinking about heat? We like to focus especially on three. So first, stay cool. If you can stay inside in places that have AC, if you’re fortunate to have it in your house, try to turn it on. If not, local libraries, malls and other places where you can get AC are good places to go.

Then the next one is to stay hydrated. It’s very important to make sure everybody, especially high risk populations, small children, pregnant women, elderly people, and people that might have a disability.

And lastly, check in in each other. If you have an elder relative that might live alone, if you know somebody that’s working on the fields, if you know somebody that has small children, let’s make sure that we take care of each other.

There’s a very big investment of millions and millions of dollars that the state is giving because extreme weather is one of the priorities of the California Department of Public Health and from the governor’s office.

Marta Segura, Chief Heat Officer and Director of Climate Emergency Mobilization, City of Los Angeles: The areas with the greatest vulnerability to extreme heat — with excess deaths and excess hospitalizations — are in areas with low income housing that lacks air conditioning, near polluting facilities, or where there is more pollution because of the urban heat island.

Heat exacerbates pollution, thus increasing the exposure to low income communities without AC or who are more likely to be pedestrians and mobile, taking the bus, or walking to school.

In Los Angeles, we now have a ten year plan for bus shelters, and we can only hope that we can accelerate that plan so that we can address the heat adaptation needs of our very mobile low income community. The energy burden is a huge obstacle and challenge to low income communities because even if they have AC, we’ve heard time and again that they don’t turn it on because they can’t afford it. So just providing AC is not the solution.

Sandra Young, Family Nurse Practitioner (retired) and founder, Mixteco Indigenous Community Organizing Project: People’s wages are tied to the quantity of fruit that they pick, so that you will literally see workers running in extreme heat with their heavy baskets of fruit to the trucks so that they can hopefully make that little bit of extra money that allows their family to pay the rent and eat.

Raspberries and tomatoes are grown in high tunnels, huge enclosed tents which trap the heat, and traps the chemicals. While there are standards in California regarding water, heat, and breaks, that these are largely ignored in the fields. Water is often far away from where people are picking, so that even to go and get water, you’re going to be raising your body temperature even more.

The majority of farm workers in California are undocumented. This means that they are very often not in a position to complain, to insist on their rights, to insist on their breaks, for fear of being fired, for fear of losing that tenuous hold on existence that they currently have.

Dr. Kimberly Chang, Family Physician, Asian Health Services: For the Asian American, Native, Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities, studies found that from 2005 to 2015, the rates of emergency department visits for heat related illnesses increased by 53%.

I work in Oakland, California. It’s an urban community. You think that there’s a lot of access to air conditioning and cooling centers. But the patients that I see, many of them are in crowded living conditions. They live in buildings that don’t have elevators. We have a very much older population that we care for at Asian Health Services. And so these are some of the risk factors for folks.

I talk to my patients about fans, windows, cooling, and light clothing. A lot of our older folks wear many layers of clothes. They’re always very concerned about getting too cold. And I tell them, don’t wear so many layers of clothing. Wear light, loose clothes, and white clothes instead of black.

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