A 2022 poll from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and NPR found that about three-quarters of people in the United States have experienced an extreme weather event in the past five years and almost a quarter of them have serious health problems as a result. What makes this work so challenging is recognizing that while we all experience harms from climate change, those who face social injustice and the repercussions of poor policy decisions are hurt the most.
Some of the short-term solutions to protect people from harm include:
- Providing safe shelter for those who experience the worst extreme heat. We know who these people are because of factors like where they live or where they work.
- Connecting state-level data on heat illness with community-based organizations that can inform and engage these residents and their neighborhoods around the impacts of extreme heat. Examples like California’s Health Places Index are pointing in a promising direction.
- Identifying and implementing a system to notify people about their risk during extreme weather. Alert systems, like mass text messages from city officials, often do not reach those most at risk. A simple neighbor check-in system can help people stay healthy and safe. For years, New York City has saved thousands of lives as a result of simple “buddy systems” that support direct local engagement during extreme weather.
- Along similar lines, municipal agencies can host neighborhood events to inform residents of local options to stay safe, like cooling centers.
- Connecting at-risk populations, like people with physical disabilities, to accessible and inexpensive or free transportation to reach those safe spaces.
More medium- and long-term solutions will require systemic action but are integral to keeping people cool as temperatures rises. Examples include:
- Updating housing codes. There are building codes that protect tenants from low temperatures, and the same should exist for high temperatures.
- Supporting and building green infrastructure, trees, and access to parks. The legacy of redlining subjects communities of color to extreme heat. In times of heat, increased access to well-shaded parks can be a respite for residents AND they help to cool entire neighborhoods.
- Upgrading energy infrastructure and related maintenance programs will ensure that mechanical cooling systems are able to perform during extreme events.
Individuals and community organizations can make a big difference, but state and federal policy solutions are critical to achieve meaningful action at the needed scale. The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act by the U.S. Congress includes many climate change- and equity-related components. And on the state level, places like Washington state, which has extreme heat and poor air quality from wildfires, will now cover the cost of air purifiers and air conditioning for people who receive Medicaid benefits.
We may not be able to stop climate change in its tracks, but we do have control over our personal responses and how we strengthen systems so they support communities. The good news is that 77 percent of people in America identify climate change as a crisis or a major problem. Recognizing the issue is one of the first steps to addressing it. This, along with our sense of community, can help keep our neighbors safe and healthy when an extreme weather event strikes.