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Understanding the Impact of Extreme Heat Events

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Photo of Jacob Zarefsky

By Jacob Zarefsky, a 2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Disaster Resilience Program. Jacob is hosted by Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.

While it is not a novel phenomenon, climate change has exacerbated the effects of extreme heat on people living in high-temperature climates. Heat-related illness and death represent a serious consequence of climate change in the 21st century, and this is especially prevalent in California. The Los Angeles Times recently published an article detailing the impact of heat-related deaths in California and found that extreme heat caused approximately 3,900 deaths in California over the past decade—that is six times more than the state’s official count. Even so, extreme heat receives substantially less awareness than other disasters, despite killing more Americans each year than wildfires, hurricanes, and floods.

Extreme heat poses an existential public health risk in California that manifests in various ways. When combined with drought conditions, extreme heat has led to many of the devastating wildfires throughout the state. These wildfires have prompted federal aid and assistance, state of emergencies, and state-wide public policy initiatives to mitigate its effects. However, as important as these efforts are, the exact location and timing of wildfires is unpredictable.

In contrast, some areas of the country experience predictable extreme heat patterns. Some areas of California can expect annual temperatures exceeding 115 degrees for several months. In 2020, heat waves impacted much of the Southwest for over three weeks and produced record-breaking temperatures throughout some regions. Heat waves lead to hospitalizations and deaths for individuals without sufficient cooling infrastructure in place, such as air conditioning and access to shade. Exact figures quantifying heat-related illnesses and deaths are inherently difficult to pinpoint, and this often results in under-reported numbers.

Ultimately, the impact of extreme heat falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable populations: communities with low-income households and people of color. Many low-income tenants do not have air-conditioning units and cannot afford to purchase them. While California landlords are required to provide access to heating, there are no state housing ordinances mandating access to cooling. Extreme heat not only raises habitability issues but also demonstrates the lack of sufficient standards in employment protections.

Ultimately, the impact of extreme heat falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable populations: communities with low-income households and people of color.

The California Division of Occupational Health and Safety (CalOSHA) is currently drafting regulations to establish minimum cooling standards for indoor environments, supplementing their outdoor employment standards. These protections will likely include access to shade, cool-down break periods, and minimum requirements to supply water. Complaints about violations of these employment standards and other heat-related safety infractions can be submitted to CalOSHA.

California lawmakers have begun to address the devastating impact of extreme heat through legislation and public policy. The city of Los Angeles recently passed a motion to announce a Chief Heat Officer to institute programs, mitigate extreme heat effects, and generate a better system to accumulate data on the issue. Further, the AB 2076 bill would establish an Extreme Heat and Community Resilience Program to coordinate state and local efforts to address extreme heat as well as a grant program emphasizing low-cost innovations to cooling infrastructure. These recent measures demonstrate California’s focus on mitigating extreme heat beyond traditional wildfire recovery, and efforts to prioritize and try to limit the effects of these devastating disasters before they occur.

The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is committed to ensuring that all disaster survivors have an equitable recovery and are resilient for the future. For more information about the program, please visit here.

The Disaster Resilience Program is funded by the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, California Community Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and individual contributions.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow