Connecticut recently completed a one-week heat wave: seven consecutive July days of temperatures in the 90’s (F). When the weather broke, it was followed by a week of temperatures “only” in the mid to upper 80’s. The first week of August is already peppered with days in the same range.
Our experience so far has not been nearly as bad as Spain and Portugal, where heat-related deaths claimed over two thousand people, the number of people displaced by heat was in the tens of thousands, and the combination of heat and wildfires damaged infrastructure, including melting roads, warped train tracks, and power outages.
It is important to distinguish between ordinary fluctuations in weather and rapid climate change. A week of high temperatures in Connecticut might be only a spell of hot weather. But scientists agree that the extent and severity of the European heat wave are reflective of climate change, and globally we are experiencing more than just unusual weather, with an overall trend toward rising temperatures and extreme weather events.
Although there has long been a scientific consensus that we are experiencing climate change driven by human industrial development, policymakers in the United States still act as if it were going to happen in the future and/or somewhere else. From 2018 to 2021, the United States experienced a 56% increase in heat-related deaths, topping out last year at over 1,500 lives lost. Climate change here in Connecticut means higher temperatures, and increases in people treated for dehydration and heat stroke in hospital ERs. It also means more and stronger storm systems and more flooding resulting in more sewer overflows. Those who suffer most from extreme weather are already vulnerable populations: older people, very young children, people with chronic health conditions and disabilities, and anyone living in substandard housing or homeless.
Rapid climate change is global and requires big-picture solutions to lower carbon emissions. But the day-to-day impact of rapid climate change requires immediate, local action to keep people safe. Politicians will complain about costs and competing priorities, but what is true globally is just as true locally: the money saved by waiting to act today means a loss of human lives tomorrow, or a week, month, or year from now.
During a heat wave, those who suffer most live in houses and apartments that are not air-conditioned or are homeless. Hartford and surrounding towns provide “cooling centers” in municipal buildings to escape the heat. When temperatures rise, or extreme temperatures continue, municipalities must expand the number of cooling centers. Beyond public spaces, local authorities must seek out privately owned spaces with air conditioning that can be opened to the public, including private daycare centers, churches and other religious buildings, malls, and office buildings. If the second tier of cooling centers are private spaces voluntarily made available by their owners, the third tier must be private spaces that can be commandeered to address people’s needs. The local shopping mall or an office building with a spacious, air-conditioned lobby may not volunteer to open its space to save people’s lives, but the principle of eminent domain says that the government can and must do so in the public interest.
Vulnerable people living in hot apartments and shelters are in danger all day and night, but existing cooling centers are typically open only during the day. When there are few other safe spaces, cooling centers need to be around the clock, with unlimited access to clean water. Local plans for coping with extreme weather must also include free mass transit to ensure people can get to cooling centers. Governor Lamont temporarily waived Connecticut Transit bus fares, but this should be permanent. Free mass transit is one of the best things that can be done locally to protect the environment.
Executive action by the Governor, including state-wide shutdowns and other emergency measures are the norm for extreme cold weather conditions; the same actions are needed to address dangerous heat waves. Workplaces, schools, daycare centers, and public places that cannot be kept at safe temperatures should not be permitted to remain open. Weather emergencies should require closing down highways and restricting travel to essential workers only. Those truly essential workers should have shorter hours and longer break times. Access to electricity and water should be prioritized for residential neighborhoods, with strict enforcement of limits on external electrical displays and the use of water for fountains and other luxuries.
As we come to recognize that rapid climate change is a here-and-now problem, state, and local officials must respond to the scope of the problem by promptly installing people-centered policies that protect human lives in extreme conditions. Make no mistake: as climate change continues unchecked, people’s lives will depend upon it.