Story at a glance
- This summer, most of the U.S. will experience above average temperatures.
- A new study found that despite that fact, most cities aren’t prepared to handle excessive heat.
- Extreme heat can be serious, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying more than 600 people are killed by high temperatures every year.
This summer, much of the country is experiencing record high temperatures, with sweltering heat waves that most major U.S. cities are not prepared for.
For the month of July, the National Weather Service has issued excessive heat warnings and heat advisories for much of Texas and parts of California and Oregon. It follows a national three-month outlook that said almost the entire country would experience above-average summer temperatures.
Extreme heat can be serious, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying more than 600 people are killed by high temperatures every year — and low-income households, children and outdoor workers are disproportionately affected.
But most major U.S. cities are unprepared to handle record summer temperatures, with researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) finding most big city municipal plans broadly referenced heat as a problem but didn’t outline intervention strategies.
In a study, researchers analyzed municipal planning documents from 50 large U.S. cities — from Chicago to Boston and Detroit to Houston — and found that about 78 percent mentioned heat as a problem. However, few offered comprehensive strategies to address it and even fewer addressed the disproportionate effect excessive heat has on low-income residents and communities of color.
“Just a couple of years ago, very few cities were talking about preparing for rising temperatures, so it’s an important step that heat is becoming a larger part of the conversation,” said V. Kelly Turner, lead author of the study and co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, in a statement.
“But without concrete steps to protect residents, cities are lagging behind the problem.”
Turner’s team found that cities’ solutions to rising temperatures didn’t necessarily match the severity or complexity of the problem, treating excessive heat like a hurricane or flood, with solutions that only entailed sending residents text message alerts and opening air-conditioned public cooling centers.
Researchers found that planting trees was the most common intervention method cities mentioned in their municipal plans as well as sun-reflecting cool roofs.
However, researchers emphasized those strategies don’t get at the full issue of excessive heat.
“If cities are not painting a complete picture of heat — how chronic it is, and its disparate impacts on the ground — we’re not going to be able to fully protect residents, and we could end up exacerbating existing social and environmental injustices,” said Emma French, co-author of the study and a doctoral student in urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
For example, researchers noted that providing shade outdoors is an effective way to protect people from sunlight exposure, but only a few cities mentioned shade in their municipal plans.
Excessive heat was also identified as an equity issue only one-third of the time, despite growing evidence that urban communities of color are disproportionately impacted by rising temperatures.
One state is turning the responsibility to consumers to help alleviate risks of record temperatures, with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a company that manages roughly 85 percent of Texas’ electricity delivery, asking residents and businesses to conserve their power usage on Monday.
That’s because the state is expecting average temperatures of 110 to 114 degrees.
Americans are well aware of the risks of extreme weather, with a poll from the progressive think tank Data for Progress finding 47 percent were either “very” or “somewhat” concerned about becoming displaced from their home due to a hurricane, flood or wildfire.
UCLA researchers also noted that in California alone excessive heat killed some 3,900 people between 2010 and 2019.