By Ashley Ward, Duke University
Daytime highs of 105 degrees grab the headlines, but we should be just as worried about something less eye-catching but still deadly — persistently high overnight temperatures.
Heat kills thousands of people each year, and it’s the 80-degree nights that quietly wreak havoc on the human body. Minimum overnight temperatures above 75 degrees leave our bodies unable to recover from the daytime heat. This is crucial for people who don’t have an air conditioner, or can’t afford to run the one they have.
The result is a cascading effect in the body that can lead to heat illness or heat stroke in a matter of days.
My decade-plus of work with communities and individuals at risk for heat exposure has shown me that individually, people are trying to protect themselves. They avoid being outdoors in high heat, schools cancel or reschedule outdoor events, and people prioritize hydration and use cooling rags to lower their body temperatures.
Nevertheless, hospital admissions for heat exposure and deaths from heat stroke continue to rise. This is because protecting Americans from extreme heat is now less about individual action and more about structural improvements.
The Biden administration’s recent executive actions to address extreme heat were not the emergency declaration many hoped was coming. Still, those actions — funding to improve home cooling environments for the most vulnerable, focusing on the communities most at risk and regulations to reduce occupational exposure to heat — will help. But we can’t stop there.
We cannot wait on politicians to solve this problem, nor should we. There is plenty we can do to change our own local structures.
Organizations like Meals on Wheels are face-to-face with at-risk populations every day. They can help save lives from heat — as well as malnutrition — just by asking clients how their air conditioner is running today. Volunteer fire departments typically know the neighborhoods most likely to suffer from energy poverty in their communities and can help distribute fans or air conditioning units.
Midwives, public health officials, volunteers at food pantries and librarians can all be trusted sources of information, demonstrating how to recognize and treat early symptoms of heat-related illness.
There are wonderful networks of local organizations who know their communities and are trusted. What they need is more help and support.
Programs like Neighborhood Watch were developed for crime prevention, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Justice. While there is justifiable concern about whether these programs are right for preventing crime, the model could help communities cope with extreme heat.
When any disaster strikes, neighbors are the true first responders. Building and supporting communities of care is how we will protect ourselves and each other from the worst extremes of climate change. Developing, funding and supporting a neighborhood resilience initiative can provide the needed structure that threads together the federal, state, county and local efforts to protect the most vulnerable.
As politicians fiddle while America burns, let’s not wait. The days — and nights — will only get dangerously hotter. We need less media reports showing children running through sprinklers, building misunderstanding about the danger of heat, and more action to help our neighbors.
Ashley Ward is a senior policy associate at The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.
This piece was first published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, which is a member of the Invading Sea media collaborative.