Killer Summer Heat is Getting Worse, But We're Getting a Start on Dealing With It

It’s been a weird winter, and weird spring. One felt like the other in many parts of the country, but both felt warm. I’m not sure what this summer will bring, but odds are it will be even hotter temperatures than normal, especially in places where most of us Americans live: cities.

As a study we released this week shows, hotter summer temperatures in cities can be dangerous, even deadly, and are likely to become even more so. Killer Summer Heat: Projected Death Toll From Rising Summer Temperatures in America Due to Climate Change reports that more than 150,000 additional Americans could die by the end of the century from excessive heat caused by climate change if no steps  are taken to cut carbon pollution and improve emergency services.

The good news is that cities around the country are taking meaningful, effective, cost-saving actions to address increasing heat and other impacts of climate change. More on that in a bit.

Our study, based on detailed analysis of peer-reviewed scientific data, projects heat-related death tolls through the end of the 21st century in the most populated U.S. cities. The three with the highest number of total estimated heat-related deaths through 2099 are: Louisville, KY (19,000 deaths); Detroit (17,900); and Cleveland (16,600), according to the report.

Reuters and the Chicago Tribune ran a great story on it, as did Mother Jones, among others.

The study found there could be five times the number of Excessive Heat Event days by mid-century and eight times that number by the end of the century. The deadliest days are often in urban areas where air conditioning is scarce or unreliable, with sizable poor populations and municipal services unprepared for large numbers of people sickened by the heat. The elderly and young children face bigger risks than most, according to the report.

Some key findings of the report:

  • At least 42 states saw record daytime highs in the summer of 2011 and 49 states saw record high nighttime temperatures, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
  • Health impacts spike during excessive heat events. For example, California was hit by deadly heat waves in 2006 that over a two week period caused  655 deaths, 1,620 excess hospitalizations, and more than 16,000 additional emergency room visits, resulting in nearly $5.4 billion in costs. During a record-setting heat wave in 1995, Chicago suffered over 700 additional heat-related deaths.

The study is timely as the Environmental Protection Agency held public hearings yesterday on a proposed landmark rule to limit global warming pollution from power plants. The rule would be the first to place limits carbon pollution from the number one source in the United States. Americans who care about their families’ health, and their children’s future have already filed an astonishing, record-setting one million comments in support of the rule; please add your voice!  We’re shooting for another one million by the end of the next four weeks when the comment period ends.

NRDC President Frances Beinecke has blogged about the hearings and heat deaths and about the million comments, colleague Kim Knowlton has more on climate and human health, and colleague David Doniger explains why carbon pollution controls are necessary and sensible.

We must cut carbon pollution from power plants, factories and vehicles by at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 if we are to have any chance of staving off the worst impacts of climate change. However, some impacts are already taking place—like heat deaths—and we need to take more steps to prepare for them.

Fortunately there are a number of cities around the country who are taking the lead on preparing for climate impacts, and setting examples others can follow.

Philadelphia's Office of Emergency Management has prepared a Citywide Excessive Heat Plan which assigns specific roles and responsibilities to city agencies and other entities, and gives senior-level managers, first responders, and private and non-profit partners, guidance in making the many complex decisions that may be necessary during an excessive heat event.

A New York Times story yesterday points out that temperatures in NYC are 7 degrees hotter than nearby suburban Westchester, thanks to the urban heat island effect. The piece focuses on the benefits of green roofs (planted with grass, shrubs, trees and the like), which include reducing the urban heat island effect by replacing heat-absorbing black tar cover with greenery, improving  air quality through plant intake of smog-forming pollutants, which is important because cutting smog also means reducing the health impacts that poor air quality produces, like asthma attacks and chronic bronchitis. In addition, green roofs reduce storm runoff and sewage overflows as plants drink rainwater.

As the Times story notes:

About every other rainfall in New York, sewers flood and back up, discharging their mix of rainwater and wastewater into the city’s waterways. It doesn’t take much to overload New York’s sewers — it can take only 20 minutes of rainfall to start water from toilets flowing into Brooklyn’s waterways.  The water does more than flood streets.  It makes us sick — cases of diarrhea spike when sewers overflow. When sewers back up, polluted water runs into our lakes and oceans, closing beaches.

Chicago has also been a leader in preparing for rising temperatures and their impacts due to global warming. One example is the roof of City Hall, which used to be black tar. Then Mayor Daley had it planted with native species able to withstand Chicago’s tough winters. The result was a minimum 50 degree drop in temperature, and a reduction from a 2001 recorded temperature of 169 degrees to 91 degrees after planting.

We need more leadership like that shown by Philadelphia, New York and Chicago.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC), a giant chunk of the contiguous US is likely to be hotter than average this summer. This is particularly true of the Southwest, the CPC says, which has exceeded the 30-year norm for the past decade.

This Memorial Day weekend is likely to set records as well, according to a story in today’s Washington Post. The Post story says the temp for Sunday’s Indy 500 may even set a record.

Perhaps that will finally get more people to realize what’s going on, and to take action. Join them.