Climate change is making heatwaves more frequent and intense, according to climate scientists. Yet there are ways to communicate those impacts to policymakers, the media and the front-line communities most affected by climate change and to reduce the often-inequitable impacts of extreme heat.
Researchers and communicators shared new data and insights during a scientific session on improving community resilience to extreme heat and a workshop on climate change conversations – two of many sessions at the virtual AAAS Annual Meeting focused on climate change impacts and solutions.
“Even small changes in average temperature can have dramatic impacts on human health and the economy,” said Brie Lindsey, director of science services at the California Council on Science and Technology and moderator of the session on heat resilience.
Heatwaves Growing in Intensity and Duration
In the United States, heatwaves in the United States are between 3 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter because of climate change, said panelist Michael Wehner, senior staff scientist in the Computational Research Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
For the record-shattering Pacific Northwest heatwave of 2021, which Wehner called “unprecedented and disastrous,” climate change made the event at least 150 times more likely and made the event nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. Those findings, Wehner noted, come from a recent report by the World Weather Attribution, an international collaboration of climate scientists focused on to extent extreme weather and climate events are influenced by climate change.
While those temperature changes may sound small, there are real impacts – and those impacts are not equally distributed, panelists said. Children, elderly people and people with underlying medical conditions are most susceptible to extreme heat, said Glynn Hulley, research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a panelist on the heat resilience session. Low-income communities also see higher temperatures than wealthier areas, he noted.
Hulley’s findings come from remote-sensing data that has shown strong increasing trends of frequency and duration of heatwaves in Southern California. Combining this data with sociodemographic information has revealed the areas most vulnerable to extreme heat. In Los Angeles, he noted, those areas are likely to farther from the ocean and have less cooling vegetation, he said.
Empowering Mitigation Efforts
There are, however, solutions to mitigate these impacts, panelists said.
In 2017, streets in several districts in Los Angeles were painted with a reflective coating that results in less solar energy penetrating the surface, said Hulley.
“We wanted to see if we could actually see that cooling from space,” Hulley said. Remote-sensing data from 2020 in fact showed an arc of cooler temperatures echoing a painted street.
Involving local communities is key to implementing effective climate change solutions at this scale, according to panelists on the climate change communication workshop.
Sacoby Wilson, director of the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, emphasized the importance of connecting the impacts of climate change to the everyday issues to spur conversation and action.
“Talk about the issues of food, faith, family, health and jobs – things that resonate with folks every day,” said Wilson.
“Making things local makes them real,” added Karen Florini, vice president for programs at Climate Central, a climate science research and communications nonprofit.
Workshop panelists emphasized the importance of empowering communities affected by climate change – pointing to the communities across the country highlighted in AAAS’ How We Respond project.
Sumanjeet Kaur, research scientist and group leader of the Thermal Energy Group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and panelist on the heat resilience session, also noted the solutions must break the “vicious cycle” between climate change and extreme heat.
“The way we adapt to extreme heat events should not contribute more CO2 to the climate,” she said.
Access to air conditioning among the growing middle classes worldwide alone could account for a .5 degree Celsius global surface temperature increase by 2050, she said.
She cited a range of cooling efforts that can help mitigate extreme heat without contributing more CO2 – as simple as painting roofs and as experimental as using space as an energy sink. Kaur also offered several recommendations for policymakers seeking to mitigate extreme heat: incentivize solutions already on the market, educate communities about existing simple solutions and invest in next-generation cooling solutions.
“I think that policymakers need to understand that dangerous climate change is here now,” added Wehner. “We need to address it, and we need to address it now. It’s not our children’s problem, it’s not our grandchildren’s problem, it’s our problem.”