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Record-Breaking Heat Waves Have Arrived Decades Earlier Than Predicted

The U.S.’s massive economic and racial inequality means heat waves disproportionately impact low-income people of color.

As the heat wave impacts accumulate, many will suffer cascading health consequences.

The heat waves of 2021, which have pummeled western regions of the United States and Canada, have killed, at a minimum, hundreds of people. In British Columbia, authorities recorded a spike in deaths in the nearly 500-range after temperatures soared to near 120 degrees; and in both Oregon and Washington State, dozens more are known to have died.

Yet those numbers, horrific as they are, do not tell the full story of the devastation caused by this summer’s record-breaking temperatures caused by a climate catastrophe that, until recently, even the most pessimistic climatologists thought was still two or three decades out. Indeed, the mortality data show that recent deaths were not simply a result of just one extreme “heat event.” There have already been a series of “heat domes” — a phenomenon in which extreme heat generated by warm ocean air is trapped under a high-pressure cap — parked over the western part of the continent this summer, with more on the way.

As this trend continues, each of those domes will bring death in its wake, and each will compound the damage inflicted by previous heat events, as vulnerable people fall prey to a lethal combination of heat, pollution, isolation and a lack of access to air conditioners and cooling centers. Moreover, as the heat wave impacts accumulate, many will suffer cascading health consequences. This has already been seen in earlier extreme heat events around the world. Perhaps most notoriously, in Europe in 2003, epidemiologists now estimate that a weeks-long heat wave spiked mortality on the continent by between 50,000 and more than 70,000 deaths. That’s almost as many people dying per week of heat-related ailments in 2003 as died of COVID each week on the continent at the height of the pandemic in 2020, when deaths in Europe peaked at about 40,000 per week.

Awful as the recent numbers coming out of the western U.S. are, those preliminary numbers do not tell the full story of excess mortality — a story that takes time to fully investigate. Moreover, they do not tell the more intimate story of who is getting sick and dying, and of the disparate impact — too often ignored in the broader political conversation — of these increasingly devastating environmental cataclysms on poorer communities of color.

“When it comes to heat waves and the violence they produce, we have this will not to know that makes it very difficult to act,” explains Eric Klinenberg, a New York University professor of sociology and author of the 2002 book Heat Wave, about a lethal weather event in Chicago in the summer of 1995 that resulted in hundreds of isolated, mainly elderly residents dying. “There’s something existentially challenging about absorbing the reality of climate change, what it means for how we live, how we settle, how we organize our lives. The health risks of heat are hard for people to understand — because they’re not like fires or hurricanes or earthquakes where everyone can recognize the threat. Heat doesn’t feel scary to most Americans, because we’re one of the most air-conditioned, artificially cooled nations on Earth — so it’s hard to generate political will to protect poor people in heat waves.”

Yet, of course, not everyone has access to air-conditioning (or even to homes in which air-conditioning could be installed). While an estimated 87 percent of Americans do have some air-conditioning (even if only a wall unit) in their homes, that leaves 13 percent, and a far higher percentage in poorer communities, particularly vulnerable during sudden temperature increases. A Residential Consumption Survey from 2015 showed a direct correlation between household income level and availability of air-conditioning: Nearly three in four households with income above $100,000 had central air-conditioning, while barely half of households with incomes of under $40,000 did. (Of course, air conditioners, while necessary in large parts of the world as the planet heats up, are hardly a cost-free panacea, since AC systems themselves feed into a vicious cycle of adding heat-generating pollutants into the atmosphere.)

And even for those who do have some air-conditioning, recent studies have shown that poorer, nonwhite urban neighborhoods — with higher population densities, fewer shade trees and historically less emphasis on efficient urban design — experience far higher temperatures than do wealthier, more planned communities in the same cities. These differences hold in big metropolitan areas and small towns alike, and the research shows that communities with a higher percentage of African American and Latino residents tend to have hotter temperatures than do whiter population centers. Because of the legacy of redlining, which relegated African American populations, in particular, to less desirable physical locations in cities, those districts tend to be more at risk of flooding or particulate pollution — and, now, of heat extremes because of global warming. Older people and socially isolated people also experience a highly disproportionate number of heat wave deaths, according to Klinenberg.

In the coming years, Klinenberg fears, the U.S. is uniquely ill-positioned to deal with the consequences of an escalating global warming crisis. “We have a climate emergency, a racial justice emergency, an inequality emergency and a social infrastructure emergency,” he argues. “We have to deal with the fact that there is grotesque poverty in the United States, and that cities are heat ovens. That combination of poverty and urban heat leaves our vulnerability to climate events extreme. We still have a chance to avert the worst possibilities with climate change, but we still have centuries of warming baked in because of greenhouse gas emissions we’ve already put out into the atmosphere. So we have no choice but to adapt.”

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