My World's on Fire

By Colleen Hagerty

The more things change


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My World's on Fire
The more things change
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #51 • View online
Thanks for reading my World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, I hope you’ll subscribe!

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. 
Graphic from
Graphic from
So, when the early forecasts began raising alarms across the Pacific Northwest, a flurry of experts began sharing concerns about how to reach the populations that were most at-risk for adverse effects. About where more cooling centers were needed or whether workers would be given adequate protections. There was broad recognition of the specific challenges this heat wave would pose to areas like Seattle, where few had air conditioning.
Still, the early reports from the Pacific Northwest paint a familiar picture of those traditionally vulnerable populations being hit hardest by the heat. In Oregon alone, dozens have died in the past week, many found “alone, without air conditioning or a fan.” ABC reported that some were elderly. That one was an immigrant farm laborer. For Earther, Dharna Noor dug into the disproportionate impact the heat had on different populations, including those with underlying conditions. “Economic and cultural conditions can make or break people’s ability to survive,” she wrote. To back up her point, she referenced a study conducted after the Chicago heat wave.
I hope those of you feeling the heat are finding ways stay safe and cool amidst this latest bout of extreme weather and that if you have the capacity, you’re taking the time to check in on your neighbors – one of the most powerful ways to prepare for any disaster.
Daniel Swain
Not really the news anyone wants to hear at the moment, but multi-model ensemble are again hinting at the potential for another substantial heatwave across a big chunk of the West in about 10 days. This one would affect CA more significantly than PacNW. Stay tuned. #CAwx #CAfire
Read more:
  • How that 1995 heat wave changed Chicago (Scientific American)
  • With this latest heat wave, it’s not just about the record-breaking highs but the record-breaking high low temperatures (Slate)
  • Should we be naming heat waves? (Washington Post)
As always...
thank you for reading and subscribing to My World’s on Fire. You can support this newsletter and get access to exclusive content by signing up for my Patreon. It also means the world to me when you share it on social media like Lucy Sherriff did (be sure to check out her great reporting on beavers and wildfires!):
Lucy Sherriff
More on how we can better imagine the scale of the US' wildfires [and why it's important to visualise this]
Now, here’s a little something for reading to the end.
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