Scientists encourage more focus on heat policy

Scientists encourage more focus on heat policy

By Anne Blythe

Here’s the good news for anyone exhausted by this summer’s triple-digit temperatures and excessive heat warnings: We’re about a month away from the first official day of fall and the autumnal equinox.

The bad news?

Even though the number of days with eye-popping thermometer readings might be trending downward, they were not just a flash in the frying pan.

The unprecedented heat that made July the hottest in recorded global history shined a light on the impact of climate change on the rapidly warming Earth, climate experts say. 

The record-breaking temperatures might abate some in the weeks and months ahead, but climatologists, researchers and policy advocates hope that does not mean that critical conversations about the extremely hot weather cool down too.

“We have focused disproportionately on a large number of climate extremes, and heat has not been one of them,” said Ashley Ward, director of the new Heat Policy Innovation Hub at Duke University.

Extreme heat can wreak havoc on the world’s infrastructure, industry and food supplies — and on the health of the population. It can force adjustments in schools as North Carolina children go back to class and outdoor sports seasons start up again.

Despite this, policy discussions on extreme heat have been woefully lacking, according to Ward.

“We’re kind of behind the eight ball in this,” she said. “There’s a lot to be done.”

Hot tubs and heat domes

Policy advocates in North Carolina and elsewhere have discussed whether the time has come to develop a national cooling standard that would set parameters for housing similar to those that require the heating of buildings in colder temperatures.

In North Carolina, many prisons are not air-conditioned, and some schools either have inadequate cooling or HVAC systems that are unable to cope on days when temperatures top 90 degrees.

Extreme heat could also have an impact on living quarters for older people or vulnerable populations with health conditions that make it more difficult for them in high temperatures with excessive humidity.

On July 27, as national news reels focused on heat domes in the Southwest and hot-tub-like temperatures in the ocean off southern Florida, President Joe Biden used the presidential pulpit to let the country know extreme heat was on his radar.

Biden asked the federal Department of Labor to issue a hazard alert for heat — the first ever, according to the White House. That ramps up legal heat-related protections for workers. The president also asked the labor department to step up its enforcement of those protections to make working conditions better for farm workers, firefighters, construction crews and other laborers hardest hit by extreme heat waves.

Since 2011, more than 400 workers have died due to environmental heat exposures, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Thousands more have been hospitalized every year, according to the White House.

Widening discussions

The Heat Innovation Hub at Duke was launched this year to connect scientists with communities to develop and help implement policies that can reduce extreme heat impacts on human health and well-being.

Over the past three decades, heat exposure killed more people in the United States than any other weather phenomenon, according to the hub’s website.

When you take the costs of labor loss, hospital visits, the reduced agriculture yield and the impact on health, the hub site says, heat is among the most significant consequences of climate change.

The optics from the extremes of this summer helped bring more people into crucial conversations, scientists in North Carolina and elsewhere say. It helps, too, when people in key positions of power lend their voice to the discussion.

“When President Biden talked about it from his presidential podium, I was thrilled,” Ward said. 

More collaborative efforts

What also has created optimism among scientists — who say it is far past time to have policy discussions about extreme heat — is the Biden administration’s focus on integrating the work of the many different departments and agencies trying to tackle the impact.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the federal Occupational, Safety and Health Administration have been collaborating. The National Integrated Heat Health Information System compiles the latest initiatives of the federal government.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Administration also are paying attention to extreme heat.

Some cities such as Phoenix, Miami and Los Angeles have set up heat wave early-warning and response systems. Phoenix and other cities have hired people — heat czars of sorts — whose jobs are to find ways to respond to heat and mitigate its effects.

“These are really important advances, to have the information of what you can do with regulation at the local level,” Kristie Ebi, a professor at the University of Washington’s Center for Health and Global Environment who conducts research on the health risks of climate change, said during a SciLine webinar on Aug. 10. “So, I do think that there is movement that’s quite positive, and of course it’s been quite positive that the president has talked about the risk of heat just within the last few days.”

Ward would like to see more discussion in North Carolina, and she would like to get lawmakers involved. One thing she would tell the Republican-led General Assembly members, many who hail from the rural reaches of the state: “Heat illness rates in North Carolina are much higher in rural counties than they are in urban.” 

The problem is that heat domes such as the one that led to 31 days of triple-digit temperatures in Arizona are becoming more common, climatologists say. That phenomenon can lead to nighttime hot spells that become dangerous, especially for people who do not have air conditioning. Their bodies do not have time to cool down and recover from the sweltering daytime weather.

There might have been a time when Southerners and others used to warm summers considered it a show of strength to weather hot spells. But those attitudes need to adapt, scientists say, as climate change leads to more severe extremes.

“What I tell people is this is not your grandmother’s heat anymore,” Ward said. “What we’re consistently talking about now is high overnight temperatures. It’s not always about maximum daytime temperatures. It’s also about humidity. We have all kinds of issues.”

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