By Julian McCall, Communications Intern
The mid-summer heat wave gripping the United States is burning through any illusions of climate change being a distant threat for future generations. On Wednesday, July 20th, nearly 100 million Americans from coast to coast sweltered under heat advisories and excessive heat warnings. Extreme heat events are growing increasingly common, and local, state, and federal governments must protect people from heat-related diseases, especially vulnerable populations like the elderly, unhoused, low-income communities, and people with underlying health issues. As the country adjusts to this new reality, cities like Phoenix can be a template for heat protection measures.
The allure of plenty of sunshine long attracted transplants from colder cities to Sunbelt states like Arizona. However, as the Earth warms up, living in places like Phoenix becomes increasingly difficult. For example, July 2022 featured 11 days in a row of temperatures over 110 degrees, with nighttime lows only dipping to the mid-80s. These temperatures, combined with factors such as the urban heat island effect, are more than just uncomfortable–they are downright deadly.
Phoenix City Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari campaigned as a climate leader and is tackling this challenge head on. She and the city council recently budgeted an additional $600,000 to HeatReadyPHX to support community groups able to respond to extreme heat. In total, 40 community organizations have distributed cool water and other cooling supplies to Phoenix residents.
The Mayor’s office is also focused on this challenge. Mayor Kate Gallego – who campaigned on sustainability – created the first of its kind Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, headed by ASU professor David Hondula. This office works to prepare for an even hotter future through both immediate responses to extreme heat and implementing longer-term measures to cool the city, such as:
- Creating dozens of miles of “cool pavement,” which can lower noontime surface temperature by as much as 12 degrees compared to traditional asphalt and is cooler at night.
- Adding reflective roof coatings to reduce the need for air conditioning
- Planting trees in neighborhoods of need with the least amount of shade
- Identifying locations to create “cool corridors” lined with trees, like routes children use to walk to school
- A network of cooling centers open from May until the end of summer.
Measures habitually hot cities like Phoenix take to protect people can serve as a model for other areas facing abnormal heat. Oregon’s state legislature recently passed the Emergency Heat Relief Act, which invests in air conditioning, air filters, and cooling centers for Oregonians vulnerable to dangerous heat. The risk of heat to vulnerable communities – from the elderly to outdoor workers – can be deadly. Some states, like California, have introduced legislation to protect the health and safety of outdoor workers, who often work during peak heat hours with little protection.
Climate change will bring higher temperatures, longer summers, and more severe heat waves. Preparing for this future is one of the most pressing imperatives of our time, and it will take state and local leadership to protect our health and safety.