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A record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada in late June is being blamed for hundreds of deaths as the region gears up for yet another spike in temperatures later this week.
Portland, Ore., reached 116 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt power cables, crack roads and shut down the city’s streetcars. The small Canadian village of Lytton in British Columbia recorded the highest temperature in the nation’s history just days before it was devastated by a wildfire that was fueled by the extreme heat.
In the absence of climate change, the heat wave would have been “virtually impossible,” but similar heat events are becoming increasingly common, according to a new study by leading climate scientists. A common refrain among climate experts is that, while the past decade was the hottest ever recorded, it will very likely be one of the coolest decades of the coming century.
The bulk of the conversation about climate change focuses on mitigation, the changes we need to make to keep temperatures from rising in the coming years and decades. The recent heat wave has fueled a parallel conversation about what’s known as climate adaptation, what we need to do today so we can endure the climate extremes that are happening right now.
Why there’s debate
The good news, experts say, is that most heat-related deaths are largely preventable and there are a variety of strategies for helping people survive when temperatures spike. The most obvious is air conditioning, which is becoming increasingly common in homes in places like Seattle and Portland, where it’s historically been unnecessary. ACs can save lives, but they also use a lot of energy. Power grids may need to be fortified to prevent potentially devastating blackouts when demand spikes during heat waves, experts say.
Another way to prevent heat-related deaths is to focus on the areas and individuals that face the greatest risk. Dense urban areas, where low-income people tend to live, can create a “heat island” effect that makes extreme heat even worse. Adding more trees, parks and other green spaces to these areas can lower temperatures dramatically, civil engineering experts say. Cities and aid groups can also put more resources into ensuring that vulnerable people, like the elderly and the homeless, have access to cooling centers during dangerous heat events.
Others say the solution must start with changing how we think about hot weather. High temperatures are often considered a natural feature of the summer months, even though they cause more deaths than any other weather phenomenon. Treating extreme heat events like natural disasters will help cities and individuals treat heat preparedness with the seriousness it deserves, they argue.
Forecasters expect higher-than-average temperatures to plague areas of the country from the Great Lakes to the Northwest until September. The combination of prolonged heat waves and ongoing drought could set the stage for another devastating fire season in the West, experts say.
Cities must provide places for vulnerable people to ride out extreme heat
“Perhaps what’s so haunting about the deaths of at least 94 Oregonians from the recent heat wave is knowing how this major climate event passed so easily for some and so painfully for others. Access to cool places, air-conditioning and employers who didn’t require outdoors work in the triple-digit heat made the difference for millions of Oregonians. But for too many people, there was no escape from a penetrating heat that just wouldn’t let up.” — Editorial, Oregonian
The climate debate must focus on what’s happening now, not the future
“Talking climate solutions has left us unprepared for actual climate change. We keep running models and fighting over which ‘solution’ is the best, but we have done nothing to address the impacts of climate change. Managing climate change is not as sexy as solving climate change, but it’s what we need.” — Climate policy researcher Juan Moreno-Cruz
Trees can make a major difference in urban areas
“Trees are, quite simply, the most effective strategy, technology, we have to guard against heat in cities.” — Environmental planning expert Brian Stone Jr. to New York Times
Congress must pass an infrastructure bill that includes adaptation measures
“The Biden administration has been teased for trying to stuff climate change into an infrastructure frame. But this week has affirmed the basic logic of its move. Adaptation, long the neglected arm of climate policy, will need to lead our efforts to address rising global temperatures.” — Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic
Heat mitigation should be a central consideration in city planning
“To limit the urban heat island effect, cities should reduce unneeded asphalt and concrete, increase vegetation by planting trees and greening stormwater infrastructure, utilize cool paving and roofing to better reflect heat, increase the energy efficiency of buildings to reduce waste heat, and conserve undeveloped lands.” — Ladd Keith and Sara Meerow, Reuters
Governments can help low-income people afford air conditioning
“Some low-income families cannot even afford the cost of an air conditioner, let alone the cost of the electricity needed to power the unit. That means the nation's most vulnerable families are at a high risk for heat-related illnesses. The federal government and state governments must do more to ensure low-income Americans have access to air conditioning.” — Mark Wolfe, CNN
Heat risk should be looked at through the lens of inequality
“The pandemic outlined already existing disparities for low-income communities and communities of color. Just like COVID-19, addressing extreme heat would necessitate looking at job safety, income, equitable access to water, and equitable infrastructure that allows for ventilation and safe indoor air quality.” — Angely Mercado, Popular Science
Extreme heat should be treated like other natural disasters
“We need more drama for heatwaves and we think that a name is going to do that. Naming tropical storms and hurricanes and cyclones has brought the awareness and the culture of prevention and preparation and resources to areas of the world that are plagued by hurricanes and cyclones.” — Climate policy advocate Kathy Baughman-McLeod to CBC
America’s power grid needs to be rebuilt to withstand increased demand
“It’s abundantly clear that the power grid in the United States is not ready for the effects of climate change, including the extreme weather events that come with it. … The country is now in a race against time to shift its energy supply toward renewable sources, like wind and solar, while also needing more and more electricity to do everything from powering more air conditioning to boosting the number of EVs on the road.” — Rebecca Heilweil, Vox
We can’t accept deadly heat events as the new normal
“[A] message of possibility is essential, a necessary frame if we are to mobilize in the face of tougher, more frequent challenges induced by climate change. Strategies of mitigation and adaptation can improve and save lives; as despairing as extreme weather events are, they ought not to drive us into morbid complacency.” — David Moscrop, Washington Post
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