Compounding Challenges: Extreme Heat Threatens Communities and Wildlife More Than Ever in The Age of Climate Change and COVID-19

Rising average global temperatures are one of the most direct indicators of climate change that can be felt and seen today. In the first half of 2020, global average temperatures marked the warmest January to June period on record. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that 2020 will almost certainly rank among the five warmest years on record and may well be the warmest. 

As heat-trapping emissions become more concentrated in the atmosphere and temperatures rise, extreme heat waves are expected to become longer, more frequent, and more severe. By midcentury, if no action is taken to slow emissions, all regions of the United States are expected to experience an increased average number of dangerously hot days per year. As well, nearly one-third of the U.S. population will be exposed to 30 or more days per year of temperatures hot enough to kill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that heat is already a serious public health concern in the U.S., with an average of 702 heat-related deaths per year, making heat one of the deadliest weather event types in the country. The National Wildlife Federation’s interactive Unnatural Disasters Story Map illustrates some of the prominent extreme heat events in the U.S. from recent years.

American kestrels, horned larks, and prairie falcons (left to right) all face declines in the Mojave desert, which have been tied to heat-related stress. Credit: Andy Morffew; Doug Greenberg; USFWS Pacific Southwest

Wildlife also suffers from climate-exacerbated extreme heat. A 2019 study found that heat stress associated with climate change fueled a collapse of the bird community in the Mojave Desert, citing higher water requirements of these birds during hotter, drier years as a primary challenge to survival. A 2020 study took a look at 538 plant and animal species that had been previously studied and found that 44 percent of the species had experienced one or more local extinctions. The local extinctions occurred at sites with larger and faster changes in yearly maximum temperature.

Urban and Suburban Areas Face Unique Heat-Related Challenges

Extreme heat poses particular threats for urban and suburban areas: vegetation is often replaced with impervious surfaces that retain heat and diminish the amount of shade and moisture available for cooling; tall buildings often trap heat; and human-generated heat from cars and industrial facilities can get trapped as well. All of these factors and more contribute to the “Urban Heat Island Effect,” wherein urban or suburban areas experience elevated temperatures when compared with outlying rural areas.

An aerial shot captures a swath of impervious surfaces in downtown Phoenix. Credit: Doc Searls

Phoenix, Arizona, in Maricopa County, is one city where the dangerous and often deadly effects of increasingly hot years can be seen clearly. The number of heat-associated deaths has risen in Maricopa County since 2014, and each year since 2015 has set a new record high death toll for the county. Thus far, 2020 appears no different, with current heat-associated deaths outpacing 2019’s numbers from this time last year.

Factors Affecting Heat Vulnerability

Even amongst those living in cities, extreme heat does not affect everyone equally. Geographic location, age, race, ethnicity, and more have a hand in determining who faces the most severe exposure and who is most vulnerable to heat-related illness or death. 

The frequency of possible exposure to extreme heat depends, to a degree, on where one lives. For instance, Arizona, California, and Texas house only 23 percent of the nation’s population, but contributed to 37 percent of the deaths related to heat. Climate change will affect which locations see greater heat in the future. If no action is taken to curb climate-altering emissions, the Sun Belt region of the U.S. will experience the most severe and life-threatening jump in days hot enough to kill by midcentury. A 2019 study found that the climate of many major cities will shift to resemble that of another city by 2050. Phoenix may experience weather closer to what is seen now in Baghdad, while Seattle’s climate may look more like Rome’s. In states with presently cooler climates, lack of access to air conditioning and cooling structures may increase residents’ risk of heat-related illness if warming scenarios are allowed to play out.

Age is also a huge factor in determining the ability to cope with extreme heat. For over a decade in Maricopa County, the heat-associated death rate has consistently been found to increase with age. According to the CDC, older adults are more prone to heat stress due to increased difficulty adjusting to sudden temperature changes and due to a greater likelihood of having a chronic medical condition or being on a prescription medication that affects the body’s ability to deal with heat.

Race and ethnicity affect who faces the greatest heat-related risk as well. In a 2020 study, the CDC found that disproportionate instances of heat-related deaths in communities of color are tied to social vulnerabilities that affect health, risk of heat exposure, and access to structural adaptation like air conditioning. These unbalanced impacts can be seen in Maricopa County; in 10 out of the last 11 years, Native American and African American residents have died from heat associated-deaths at significantly higher rates than white residents.

Pictured left: A sign warns of danger due to extreme heat. Credit: Graeme Maclean

Edison-Eastlake, a Phoenix neighborhood where most residents are people of color, is one example of a community burdened by the effects of redlining, neglect, and discrimination. As a result, homeownership and median household income remain low in the neighborhood. During community workshops, residents have elevated concerns over a lack of access to shade and drinking water and challenges affording the high costs of electricity to cope with the heat. All parts of the neighborhood are among the hottest in central Maricopa county and the vegetation and tree cover are below average for the county. The neighborhood’s heat-associated death rate is more than 20 times the county’s average.

The death rates in Edison-Eastlake, as well as the death rates of Native American residents, African American residents, and older adults in Maricopa county, illustrate that vulnerable communities and people are often hit the hardest by extreme heat, amongst other climate-related natural disasters.

COVID-19 Creates Additional Challenges

This year, COVID-19 creates additional challenges for dealing with extreme heat. For instance, social isolation tends to correlate with heat-related risk. As well, the coronavirus is already killing people of color and older adults at disproportionate rates. Challenges due to climate change impacts, natural disaster exposure, and the pandemic intersect and compound vulnerabilities for communities and individuals. Leaders from localities with high incidences of COVID-19 infection are encouraging people to remain indoors, but sometimes the indoors pose other dangers for residents.

Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, Vice President of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation honed in on these intersections while testifying before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee at a hearing on COVID-19, Extreme Heat, and Environmental Justice last week.

“We need to make sure that people in an extreme heat event have access to air conditioning. That is the first step in making sure that they can deal with these escalating bills that are going on. But, then we have to ask the question about what types of air conditioning are proper to make sure that the right types of ventilation are going on,” said Dr. Ali.

Escalating bills due to more days of extreme heat are only made worse by energy inefficient homes that are common around the nation. Heat-related illness is an even bigger threat to those who may not be able to afford sufficient cooling indoors.

This map shows how temperatures in the U.S. during the first half of 2020 have compared to annual mean average temperatures from the first half of the year from 1901-2000. Almost all divisions have experienced higher-than-average temperatures this year. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The above map shows how temperatures in the U.S. during the first half of 2020 have compared to annual mean average temperatures from the first half of the year from 1901-2000. Almost all divisions have experienced higher-than-average temperatures this year. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

As well, Dr. Ali highlighted water insecurity, calling attention to energy injustices currently faced by several low-income communities that do not have the financial means or employment security to keep their utilities on. “If we know that folks’ water is being turned off, but we’ve sent a message across the country that you need to be able to wash your hands to protect from COVID-19, then there is something wrong with our process…,” he remarked.

Natural Climate Solutions and Clean Energy Investments Offer a Path Forward

Smart policy and planning can help to ameliorate natural disasters, including extreme heat, and are essential to protecting people and wildlife. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global CO2 emissions need to be cut to nearly half the current level by 2030 and to net-zero emissions (after accounting for carbon sinks) by 2050 at the latest to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change. Investments in clean energy, energy storage, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, and carbon removal technology are key to reducing carbon emissions and meeting these goals. 

As well, investments are needed for natural climate solutions, which can both mitigate climate impacts through carbon storage and emissions reduction, and mitigate natural disasters through protective functions, all while providing other benefits like habitat creation or added recreational value. The EPA’s compendium of strategies for reducing urban heat islands recommends a host of natural climate solutions including expanding the use of urban trees, vegetation, and green roofs. These strategies boost resilience and reduce carbon emissions simultaneously. 

Urban trees and vegetation, for instance, help to provide shade and moisture for evaporative cooling; vines alone can reduce surface temperatures by up to 50º Fahrenheit when grown on the walls of homes. Expanding the use of urban trees and vegetation comes with numerous “co-benefits” including reduced energy use, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, decreased stormwater run-off, “quality-of-life” and psychological benefits for residents, and provisioning of food and shelter for wildlife.

The Chelsea Piers Park with Hudson Yard skyscrapers in the background in New York City, New York. Credit: Andreas Komodromos

Outside of the context of cities, natural climate solutions can be used to address the climate crisis and resultant extreme heat effects as well. Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors, or HECHO, is an organization that was created to help conserve public lands and provides a platform for Hispanic leaders to engage their communities in the conservation of our public lands. Executive Director Camilla Simon noted that “investing in the restoration of forests, grasslands, and wetlands would help our public lands store more carbon, mitigate disaster risks like flooding after wildfires, provide air and water quality benefits, create jobs, and more.” Further, natural climate solutions benefit wildlife by creating, restoring, preserving, or connecting quality habitat and protecting against climate impacts. 

Still, it is crucial that investments in clean energy and natural climate solutions adequately account for social vulnerabilities and focus attention where it is needed most. Adhering to equitable design principles is a must to ensure that policies, planning, and projects benefit the communities that face the greatest risks.

As Congress continues to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, it has the opportunity to invest in natural climate solutions, clean energy, and energy efficiency to build a more resilient and equitable future. Tell your Members of Congress to support these crucial rebuilding and protective strategies now!

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Learn more about how climate change affects natural disasters in your state, or to learn more about using natural systems to ameliorate the climate crisis, check out our Natural Climate Solutions Federal Policy Platform.

This blog is a part of a series on climate impacts and climate-exacerbated natural disasters. More blogs in the series: