In a Changing Climate, Access to Cooling Is a Human Right

When I wake at 5:00 a.m. on a summer desert morning, it’s to catch the only cool moments before the day begins. In a few hours, the temperature will rise past 100 degrees, and by mid-day, the dashboard thermometer in my car will read 117 degrees. I keep my children’s car seats covered with old towels and grocery bags to prevent the buckles from heating up like branding irons.

Along the roadsides, the leaves on the orange trees droop and even the cacti look thirsty. At the Santa Rita Park, dozens of people are stretched out on top of blankets in the grass, taking refuge beneath the few leaning shade trees. Every summer there are seasonal warnings on the news: Remember to stay hydrated. Never leave your pets or children in an enclosed vehicle. Seek out a cool, indoor space during the hottest part of the day.

Once, during a heat wave, I volunteered in an emergency cooling center. It was in the basement of a nearly-abandoned building, down a narrow staircase of teetering bricks. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could make out the presence of other human beings sitting against the cement wall or reclining on cots. Mostly people were quiet, listening to each other breathe, napping, occasionally making small-talk, filling water cups from a jug of filtered water by the door. They spent hours there until the sun went down, then they reemerged above ground. But even at night the temperature stayed at 100 degrees.

According to NASA, the year 2017 was the second hottest year in the 138 years that we’ve been able to measure global temperatures. All five of the warmest years on record have taken place since 2010. In the United States and globally, climate change and the resulting heat and drought disproportionately affects those living in poverty, as do extreme weather events such as hurricanes and wildfires.

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions calls extreme heat “the deadliest natural disaster in the United States, killing more people on average (about 600 per year) than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods combined.” In communities across the country, cooling initiatives are becoming increasingly critical to preventing heat-related illnesses and death, especially among low-income or homeless populations.

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On average each year, the city of Phoenix experiences 110 days above 100 degrees and dozens of heat-related or heat-caused deaths. Last summer, when temperatures hovered just below 120 degrees, dozens of flights in and out of Phoenix were canceled, the airlines stating that it was simply too hot for planes to take off. Maricopa County recorded 155 heat-related or heat-caused deaths in 2017, with the number of fatalities significantly spiking during July.

For over a decade, the city of Phoenix has been developing lifesaving strategies in the event of extreme heat. Much of this planning was the result of a catastrophic week in July 2005, when Phoenix and the surrounding Maricopa County area experienced a severe heatwave. There were 30 deaths related to heat exposure in a single week, which included several individuals experiencing homelessness. In response, the Maricopa Assocation of Governments (MAG) convened a conversation with community partners. The result was the Heat Relief Network, a collaboration of nonprofit organizations, faith-based communities, businesses, and municipalities that manage 179 heat relief sites across Maricopa County that provide air conditioning, bottled water, hats, sunscreen, and lip balm.

Brande Mead, Human Services Manager for the Maricopa Association of Governments, believes the community’s response to extreme heat in Maricopa County is replicable in other places, and says similar initiatives are beginning in other areas of the state. “It’s basically a grassroots effort that grew out of the need to provide help to vulnerable populations. And we came together with resources that we already have,” she says.

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The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines a cooling center as a “location, typically an air-conditioned or cooled building that has been designated as a site to provide respite and safety during extreme heat.” A recent report analyzed the role of cooling centers as cost-effective and widely-used approaches for preventing heat-related deaths. During a heat wave in 1995, Chicago reported 700 heat-related deaths and thousands of emergency room visits. In response, the city implemented a heat warning system which included cooling centers, and as a result, the city saw 80 percent fewer heat-related deaths during a similar heat wave in 1999.

The CDC also acknowledges challenges with cooling centers, including disseminating location information to the public, as well as resistance by some individuals to the idea of leaving their homes and/or pets for long periods of time. There was also a stated aversion to spending unoccupied hours in public cool spaces with strangers. Others had the perception that cooling centers were only for “old people,” or stated that they already relied on public libraries or malls for air conditioning during hot times of the year.

Despite those challenges, cooling centers are considered one method for increasing community and individual resilience in a changing climate. Initiatives are popping up in cities across the country, including Baltimore, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Las Vegas, as well as in small towns and rural communities. And each government building, library, or church that opens its doors and offers a cooled space for those who need it, contributes to a growing message that cooling is in fact a human right.