Deadly extreme heat has arrived: here's how policymakers can save lives

Deadly extreme heat has arrived: here's how policymakers can save lives
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In June, Portland, Ore., hit a blistering 116 degrees — heat so extreme that roads buckled and power cables melted, grinding the city’s public transit system to a halt. Thousands of people sweltered in homes without cooling, and several hundred people across the Northwest and Canada died. In Oregon, the youngest victim to succumb to the heat was just 37 years old.

Heat waves in the United States have become mass casualty events — and the reality is, this summer, with its blistering temperatures, is likely to be the coolest and most climatically stable that we will experience for decades to come. As the consequences of climate change intensify, no area in the United States is safe from deadly heat. Despite the risks, many communities remain unprepared to weather new extremes. 

To keep households safe, leaders around the country need to ensure that all homes, even those in areas with historically mild climates, have access to cooling. But equipping millions of residences with air conditioning would only drive up climate-warming pollution, fueling higher temperatures. Enter the humble electric heat pump — a game-changing, ultra-efficient technology that pulls double duty, providing both heating and cooling. 

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This appliance, which can replace both air conditioning and heating units, is exactly what households need to stay healthy in the face of climate-fueled heat — and importantly, transitioning to heat pumps will actually lower climate pollution, rather than adding fuel to the fire. The benefits of heat pumps are so key, from both a resiliency and a climate standpoint, that they should be the standard choice nationwide when building a new home or replacing a burnt-out air conditioning system or furnace.

Heat pumps are simple appliances — in the summer, heat pumps pull heat out of the home, providing cooling, while in the winter, the technology pulls heat into the home, providing warming. Heat pumps eliminate the need for fossil fuel furnaces, even in super cold climates, and are quickly becoming staples in states like Maine and Minnesota where winters are harshest.

According to an analysis from the Sierra Club, replacing a gas furnace with a clean electric heat pump cuts climate pollution in every state over the next 10 years of the appliance’s life — and in the states that are best positioned to take advantage of this technology, upgrading to a heat pump has the same climate impact as giving up a gasoline car entirely. 

Heat pumps will also deliver major savings for families. According to a report from Rewiring America, replacing fossil fuel furnaces and water heaters with clean electric alternatives like heat pumps can immediately lower costs for 103 million of America’s 121 million homes

To help families cash in on these savings, Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichOvernight Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Schneider Electric — Deadly Ida floodwaters grip southeast US David Sirota: Seven Democrats who voted against fracking ban trying to secure future elections Deadly extreme heat has arrived: here's how policymakers can save lives MORE (D-N.M.) introduced a bill last month to provide incentives for electric appliances in homes. Increasing subsidies for electric appliances is incredibly popular among voters, according to recent polling from Data for Progress and Rewiring America, which found 65 percent of voters would prefer subsidies for electric appliances, compared to just 24 percent of voters who supported rebates for gas. 

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These findings should inform decision making across the country. Despite the urgent need to move towards electric appliances in buildings, regulators continue to greenlight subsidies for new fossil fuel appliances and pipelines — a cost that not only raises utility bills, but also increases the risk of stranded assets as we transition to clean energy. 

To safeguard families from footing the bill for an obsolete energy system, subsidies should instead go towards resiliency-boosting electric appliances like heat pumps, which reduce energy use, while pulling double duty to keep families comfortable year round. 

There are signs that momentum is shifting in that direction. This month, Washington, D.C. will become the first city in the nation to end subsidies for gas appliances in homes. In a major step for ensuring that new homes and buildings are equipped with heat pumps, the state of California is also expected to approve a building code this month that is the first in the nation to include heat pumps as a baseline technology. 

The health risks posed by extreme heat are only going to intensify in coming years with climate change. We need to act now to keep our communities safe by equipping all homes with clean electric heat pumps. 

Access to cooling in households around the country is not simply a luxury. This is a matter of life and death.

Panama Bartholomy is the director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition. Twitter: @panamaredhat, @buildingdecarb