Colorado Heat Waves: Why, Where, and How to Stay Safe
Heat waves are on the rise, and they’re especially dangerous for outdoor workers, people without adequate air conditioning, and the elderly. Keep reading to learn more about the connections between climate change and heat waves, what you can do to keep yourself and others safe and healthy, and what your elected officials can do to help you stay cool.
Connecting Climate Change and Colorado Heat Waves
In Colorado and across the country, climate change is leading to hotter and more frequent heat waves. In fact, Colorado is one of the fastest-warming states in the nation, with a temperature increase of 2.9 degrees between 1970 and 2018. If we continue to increase carbon pollution emissions that are destabilizing the global climate, our country could warm an additional 5 to 10 degrees by the end of the century. The effects of this warming are profound: research suggests that around 28,000 people in 45 major urban areas in the United States could die each year due to summer heat by the 2090s.
How to Protect Yourself during Heat Waves
Young children, older adults, people with chronic illnesses, people who work or exercise outdoors, lower-income communities, and some communities of color are among the groups most vulnerable to the health effects of extreme heat. City residents are also at risk due to the urban heat island effect, which leads to higher temperatures in cities due to a lack of green spaces and tree cover as well as paved surfaces that absorb and re-radiate heat.
When it comes to heat waves, prevention is the best defense. Tips to find relief include:
- Avoid spending too much time in direct sunlight and use shaded outdoor areas instead
- Visit local cooling centers or other air-conditioned spaces to cool off
- If spending time outdoors, wear sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher
- Drink water
- Check on homebound friends and neighbors and take extra care with young children, older adults, and other vulnerable groups
- Listen to local weather and heat alert information
What Colorado Elected Officials Can Do to Help You Stay Cool
We need all of our government officials—local, state, and federal—to take action to slow climate change and address the impacts we’re already seeing in our communities. When it comes to extreme heat, there are many adaptation strategies that Colorado’s local and state leaders can pursue. These include establishing early warning systems with advance forecasts of extreme heat events, opening cooling centers that offer air conditioning, and helping hospitals and healthcare systems prepare to serve as response centers. It’s also critical that cities work to mitigate the urban heat island effect by planting trees, switching to cooler paving materials, and installing vegetated “green” roofs.
Elected officials should prioritize these kinds of interventions in the communities that need them most. Research shows that the urban heat island effect is more intense in low-income and Black. Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) neighborhoods. For example, in Denver and Colorado Springs, people of color live in areas with more intense summertime urban heat islands than white residents—1.8 degrees Fahrenheit hotter, to be specific.
There’s also a big role for local and state governments and utilities to weather-proof our homes and buildings to help keep cool air indoors, which can reduce utility bills every month and also help Coloradans stay safe during summer power outages. Weather-proofing includes supporting homeowners and businesses in improving insulation, replacing traditional air conditioners with efficient air source heat pumps when air conditioners wear out, and scaling up demand flexibility programs that automatically manage electricity demands.
We must also take steps to protect Colorado workers—such as farm workers, telephone line technicians, and construction workers as well as indoor workers in older or poorly maintained buildings—from extreme heat. NRDC research exploring this workplace health hazard highlights these threats, especially for workers engaged in strenuous physical labor, and highlights the increasing risks as average temperatures and heat wave frequency increases. In addition to tackling the causes of climate change, NRDC recommends that federal lawmakers and regulators:
- Adopt an occupational heat safety standard and modernize our health and safety laws and policies to address the realities of the climate crisis and ensure that enforcement funding and staffing are up to the challenge of protecting workers
- Strengthen the role of unions and other worker organizations to ensure workers are full partners in the effort to protect their health and safety from climate change
- Build a better system to track, analyze, and quickly act on existing and emerging health and safety threats to workers
- Support research on the best health and safety interventions to protect worker health from climate change