The human body cannot withstand extra high temperatures for long. A healthy person can tolerate 95 degrees Fahrenheit combined heat and humidity for a few hours, but prolonged exposure causes weakness, cramps, confusion, dizziness and dehydration. After a certain point, vital organs such as the brain begin to swell.
Almost 100 million Americans have been confronted with these dangerous conditions in recent weeks. Yet very few live in places that guarantee any kind of access to refrigeration. In most of the country, air conditioning is still considered a luxury used for comfort, not a public health necessity that saves lives.
The US has managed to do better when it comes to helping people through the winter. The vast majority of states have policies that prohibit turning off power during a winter break. Most states also require heating for multifamily homes. But summer cooling policies are a patchwork of letting the most vulnerable slip through the cracks. Federal buildings, homes, and prisons have heat standards, but no AC guarantees. And according to data collected by Indiana University’s Energy Justice Lab and shared with cafemadrid, only eight states require utilities to keep the power on during a heat wave.
“We understand the public health implications of having an apartment that is too cold, especially for the elderly,” said energy economist Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association and the Energy Programs Consortium, an aid organization. to low-income consumers. “We have rules that require owners of multi-family homes to provide adequate heat. There is no gray area.”
The nation does not have an accurate picture of what the lack of a coherent cooling strategy is costing the public. Some low-income consumers have to choose between turning on the air conditioning or buying food. For some, this means utilities have cut their power because they fell behind on unpaid bills, even in life-threatening heat.
Reports are just started until drip about how deadly the current heat wave is. Many of these deaths are completely preventable. That’s especially true when heat-related deaths and illnesses occur indoors, where we spend most of our time. When Oregon suffered a three-digit heat wave last summer, officials reported many of the people who had died were found indoors without AC or a fan. About a third of heat-induced deaths occur indoors, according to figures from the Arizona Department of Health Services the home.
Cooling policy hasn’t caught up with a warmer planet
We can count on one thing: more waves are coming. The world has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius, a seemingly small shift in climate that is causing extreme heat to become more common. There are more extremely hot days, and less extremely cold, around the world.
In the US, Climate Central identified 126 locations that now have an extra week of extremely hot days each year compared to 1970 (places like Phoenix and Austin are the worst off, see now weeks above 100 degrees). And the summer evenings are almost getting warmer twice as fast as daytime temperatures, leaving people with no respite from the heat.
The health implications of that 1-degree shift show up in death data: Arizona’s Maricopa County has reported a mid-season record of 222 suspected heat deaths, 29 of which were confirmed. At least 25 of these have happened in the past week. These numbers are roughly in line with what studies have estimated: more heat waves mean more deaths and illnesses from heat stress. For each additional day of extreme heat per month, one research in the Journal of the American Medical Association found, there are 7 extra deaths per 10 million people.
You don’t have to live in a traditionally warm climate to be at risk. Historically, cooler states face even greater challenges. Fewer residents have air conditioning and people are less used to the heat. A 95-degree day in Washington state can be deadlier than the same temperature in Texas. Last summer, more than 500 people died in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Canada as temperatures shattered records in the triple digits.
The answer to hot weather is to get people out of the heat. This is especially true for the most vulnerable population groups, who have lower tolerances. This includes older adults, very young children, those with chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, and those who are overweight.
But just going in might not be better. There are all kinds of reasons why the house can become a death trap: People live in concrete houses built to withstand the cold, but without air conditioning or ventilation to keep cool. Or people have air con but are afraid to turn it on because they can’t pay the bill. Or the air conditioning is broken and the landlord has not repaired it. Or the utility company cut off the power because of a missed bill payment. The Pulse survey of the censushas found, for example, that about one in five households has been unable to pay an energy bill in the past 12 months.
Refrigeration is overlooked at every level of government. The designated federal program to help low-income consumers, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), spends 85 percent of its money on heating in the winter, rather than cooling in the summer, Wolfe explained. Biden announced last week $385 million in more funding for LIHEAP, but Wolfe estimated his cooling needs at about $3.8 billion, equal to his heating budget.
Even cities with robust climate plans are slow to change. Chicago, for example, only recently passed a requirement this summer for assisted living homes to provide AC. Some traditionally hot places have these protections, but not all. And the problem is that climate change is blurring the lines between warm and cold climates.
Deaths from indoor heat are completely preventable
There is one policy the US can adopt today that could also save lives: shutting down utilities in the summer because a customer missed one or more payments.
Right now, only 18 states have safeguards in place that prevent utilities from cutting off a customer’s power in a heat wave due to missed payments, while 41 states have these safeguards in place for the cold. That leaves most of the population vulnerable to utility shutdowns during the deadliest period of extreme weather of the year.
Disconnecting utilities is getting more attention. During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, some states have prevented utility shutdowns for nonpayment. A report from the Center for Biological Diversity found that from the start of the pandemic in January 2020 to December 2021, household electricity has been exceeding 3.6 million time. Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Illinois were responsible for most of the disconnections.
It is difficult to determine the size of the population affected by cuts in utilities. Some utilities voluntarily suspend power cuts above certain temperatures, but in many states there is no monitoring or even reporting. Indiana University researchers are trying to collect data for the first nationwide database addressing this problem. David Konisky, co-director of Indiana University’s Energy Justice Lab, estimated the number to be tens of thousands each summer.
Arizona is one of the few states with a policy of protecting its residents from heat outages. In 2018, 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman died after the Arizona Public Service (APS) cut its power during a 107-degree heat wave. Pullman was about $50 behind in her payment that month. Her death only became public as a Phoenix New Times reporter Elizabeth Whitman published an article in 2019.
Pullman’s case built support for Arizona to finally ban these types of summer blackouts. In 2022, the Arizona regulatory agency made its temporary rules permanent for utilities such as APS. The rule prevents some Arizona utilities from turning off power in the summer months or when temperatures exceed 95 degrees.
Stacy Champion, a climate activist who lives in Phoenix in Maricopa County and advocated the new rule, argues that the policy is still full of loopholes. First, it doesn’t apply to the state’s second-largest utility, Salt River Project, because it’s not regulated by the same agency. The state legislature could fix that with a law that regulates all utilities. Second, the rule itself sets a relatively high temperature threshold limited to the summer months, meaning early season heat waves are not covered.
Champion has argued for even stronger heat shields that are temperature controlled, citing her years of Maricopa County registration requests over heat-related deaths. She sees reports of heat-related deaths popping up once temperatures rise above 85.
Setting the utility threshold at 95 degrees may not even be enough to protect the most vulnerable. Konisky of Indiana University thinks there is a more chronic problem, even if the temperature is milder. “We tend to focus on [disconnections] during heat waves, or during cold spells, or during natural gas price spikes, but this happens all the time,” he said. “It’s not just the very poorest who are more likely to be disconnected, but it’s people of color, people with young children, people with medical disabilities.”
One of the chronic underlying problems is racial discrimination. Like the data on utility disconnection, this is difficult to demonstrate. In 2017, NAACP released a report on utility shutdowns in colder months, showing that African Americans are more common than white people, regardless of income. In New York City, black residents of New York City are responsible for half of the heat-related deaths, despite making up 22 percent of the population. Access to air conditioning is a key factor, but so are the green spaces and vegetation that can make a neighborhood cooler.
Filling this policy gap on utility shutdowns should not be left to states. “Congress could pass a law tomorrow that says utilities can’t disconnect anyone for nonpayment” at certain times of the year, Wolfe said. Whether it’s states or Congress filling the gap, there’s no more time to lose.
“Twenty years ago you might have had this very severe heat wave once in the summer,” Wolfe said. “This summer it’s just continuous. Our society is not ready for that. Our programs are not ready for it. People are not ready for it.”