Extreme Heat, Extreme Injustice

Bijan Ashtiani-Eisemann

Date: 07/26/2022

Extreme heat in California is only getting worse. Low income and minority communities will face the brunt: it’s a deadly injustice.

Hi, I’m Bijan. I’ve worked as a climate communications intern with Let’s Green CA! for the past six months. I’m proud to say I graduated from UC Santa Cruz last month with degrees in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Environmental Studies, and Earth Sciences. Though my graduation ceremony didn’t involve the extreme heat UC Davis graduates had to deal with, I’ve been feeling the heat myself and wanted to spend some time thinking through the equity implications of increasingly hot summers here in California, and around the world. But first, let’s talk a little science:

I grew up in Encinitas. When my family would visit L.A. as a kid, I always noticed the city felt hotter as you drove further into it and wondered why that was (you may have noticed this too). Turns out, this is actually a well known phenomenon called the urban heat island effect: cities dominated by concrete buildings and with few trees tend to be considerably hotter than the surrounding area due to human infrastructure that absorbs and re-emits the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes (think about how hot the concrete gets in the summer months). We have recently learned that this phenomenon acts on an even more local level to create heat disparities between communities within cities based on income and race.

“[N]eighborhoods with lower-income and higher shares of non-white residents experience significantly more extreme surface urban heat than their wealthier, whiter counterparts” according to a study published in the journal Earth’s Future last summer.

In over 70% of (the 1056) U.S. counties studied, lower income people and people of color faced higher temperatures than those with higher incomes and white people. This phenomenon exists worldwide: LGCA Environmental Justice Organizer Batoul Al-Sadi recently shared how her family experiences extreme heat in their hometown of Baghdad, give it a read if you have not already!

As LGCA’s climate communications intern, I’ve spent a lot of time using graphic design to illustrate climate issues. I decided to create a few graphics to further explain this deadly inequity:

In the Bay Area, “tree canopy density range[s] from roughly 5% in neighborhoods with average incomes of $40,000 or less to nearly triple that at $120,000 and up.”

L.A. is a prime example of the unequal distribution of money, cooling infrastructure, trees, and parks, and the dire consequences this inequity has for marginalized groups.

Just last year, an estimated 800 people died in a heat wave that scorched the Pacific Northwest. Heat waves like these used to occur only every 50 years, but now occur every 10 years. In addition, California’s worst heat waves have all occurred since 2003, and California’s heat season is expanding.

We’re facing a reckoning with extreme heat, but the solutions are clear. Here are some steps California can take to adapt to a warming climate to protect its frontline communities from extreme heat:

  • Plant more trees to provide shade and refuge from the heat

  • Change building materials and paints to paler colors to reflect heat

  • Open up more cooling centers in at-risk areas

  • Issue earlier and more comprehensive heat advisories so people can anticipate and prepare for predicted risks

  • Provide financial assistance to low-income communities to offset summer energy bills

UC San Diego researchers estimate that “[i]f building and roof colors are adjusted in addition to the increase in vegetation, temperatures can drop by as much as 4.6 degrees Fahrenheit, reducing heat for 83 percent of urban residents.”

California is on a collision course with climate catastrophe, and we’re calling on Governor Newsom to declare a climate emergency immediately. Declaring a climate emergency would give the Governor broader executive authority to address much of the climate impacts that threaten California, and it would increase pressure on President Biden to declare a national climate emergency. You can take action today.

The science is clear, the solutions exist, now we need to force our leaders to act before more lives are lost. If you want to help share this information, please share these graphics on your social media pages: Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Now the next time you experience extreme heat in your community, you can to talk to your friends and neighbors about the equity aspects of this issue.

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California is in a Climate Emergency

Wildfires. Droughts. Landslides. Enough is enough — California is in a climate emergency, and it will keep getting worse unless we fix it. Step one: tell the Governor to officially declare a state of climate emergency now.