You probably don’t need me to tell you how hot it is. Many of you are experiencing it or just getting over having experienced it, the thickness in the air unrelenting even at night. For those outside of the impacted areas, you’ve likely seen it talked about across social media or in the news, day after day declared “record-breaking” alongside photos of kids running through sprinklers or buckling streets. There’s been a lot of focus this week about the role of climate change
in this heatwave, which is encouraging, as it is shaping the extreme weather we’re now experiencing and has long been left out of the conversation. It’s also important to note what hasn’t changed, though, which is what I want to do today.
I’m fortunate enough to be in the latter camp of the two groups I described above, currently writing to you from Chicago. It’s a city that experienced its own significant heat wave
in recent history, a sweltering stretch in 1995 that saw more than 700 deaths. They were largely concentrated in the area’s poorest neighborhoods, painting a picture of “the ways in which class, race, and zip code predetermine who lives and dies,” as Cooked
a documentary about the disaster, delves into.
Last year, I produced my own mini-documentary
about the rising heat in Los Angeles. Through that work, I learned about how a similar framework of inequality maps out onto that city and many others in the US, the hottest areas being primarily lower-income neighborhoods shaped by racist policies like redlining
. There has also been historic disinvestment in many of these places, meaning they have less infrastructure to mitigate heat. For example, George Ban-Weiss from the University of Southern California explained to me that there is a clear connection between the amount of tree cover and the wealth of neighborhoods, with poorer areas having less shade. At the same time, these residents have less disposable income to put towards cooling down their homes.
“You put these two things together – less tree cover so it’s warmer and less access to air conditioning – and that makes for really vulnerable communities to seeing increases in extreme heat,” Ban-Weiss said.
This vulnerability is well-recognized at this point, detailed by researchers, reporters, and politicians alike. Just a few weeks ago, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis discussed it in a hearing
on “Building Resilient Climate Communities,” which included testimony from LA Mayor Eric Garcetti.
“We can’t forget that every time it gets extreme heat, we lose seniors, we lose poor folks who don’t have the HVAC systems,” Garcetti said in his opening statement. Other officials chimed in with their own heat-related concerns, including rising hospitalizations. A lot of experts will tell you that heat is known as a “silent killer
,” more deadly than most realize and difficult to get people to prepare for as they do for something like a hurricane or wildfire. For the past 30 years, heat has killed
more people on average than any other weather-related disaster.