A quarter of the nation is vulnerable to extreme heat. How can cities cope?
New data shows that nearly 1 out of 4 people in the U.S. live in circumstances that make them vulnerable to extreme heat. But infrastructure changes could offer some hope.
The Census Bureau’s Community Resilience Estimates for Heat – an experimental data product – looked at 10 risk factors that make a community’s residents more susceptible to heat exposure. They include housing, transportation, age and financial hardship.
“This collaboration is an example of how we can leverage data and innovation to identify and address social inequalities and improve the resilience of communities in the face of climate change,” said Patricia Solís, executive director of Arizona State University’s Knowledge Exchange for Resilience program, which helped with the product.
Nationally, about 24% of people had three or more risk factors, according to the data collected in 2019. About 32% of people had no risk factors.
“There starts to be a combination of factors that would make us worried about how an individual would react to a heat event,” said the bu r eau's Chase Sawyer .
New Mexico was the only state in the Mountain West with a percentage higher than the national average, according to Sawyer. Arizona, Montana and Nevada hit the average, and the rest of the states fell below that.
The Greater Salt Lake area proved to be one of the more resilient areas, Sawyer said. He thinks New Mexico could be an outlier due to poverty.
“If people have financial hardship, they're less likely to turn on the air conditioner or seek out resources to go ahead and make sure that they are protected from the heat in those situations,” he said.
The Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research organization, looked into infrastructure changes that cities could promote to help with the heat. That’s the main job of Marianne Eppig, the institute’s director of resilience.
“We have, I think, a responsibility to be more responsible with how we develop properties so that people have safe spaces to live, work, play,” she said, “and also policies so that we can protect people who might not have health insurance, who may not have air conditioning at home.”
In 2019, Eppig and her colleagues worked on a report called Scorched to share ideas with city planners. It lists a variety of solutions, from painting pavement white to passive cooling in buildings to adding building “envelopes” that provide shade, such as the green awning protruding from Denver’s Union Station. She also recommended adding more resilience hubs to cities — areas where citizens can be in air - conditioned spaces while having snacks or doing activities.
But Eppig said many building owners don’t have enough money to pay for improvements or retrofits.
“Providing incentives or rebate programs or whatever it might be for existing buildings to transition to a hotter future, that could be really impactful,” she said.
Not every solution has to be something that is built, Eppig said. Even adding trees or increasing the number of parks and open spaces in a city could help reduce the urban heat island effect, among other benefits.
“So instead of being like, ‘Oh, let's just build our way out of this crisis,’ we actually start like, adding green infrastructure,” she said.
Eppig stressed that city planners need to make these changes soon, as the nation is only going to get hotter. She pointed to a Climate Impact Lab map that shows projected state temperatures up to 2099. Over time, states that are blue with “cooler” temperatures slowly start to become yellow and orange.
“I think extreme heat is the climate hazard that we see the most,” Eppig said. “It's the most prevalent across our country and the globe. … We're already seeing increases in temperatures and people are already dying from extreme heat. So we can't wait.”
This dataset from the Census Bureau is very new, and the agency is seeking feedback to improve it. To comment, contact Chase Sawyer at email@example.com.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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