Why Heat Waves Should Inspire Us All to Turn up the Heat on Climate Action
2022 is on track to becoming the fifth hottest year on record. And it has us thinking, what more needs to happen for our world leaders to take real and immediate action?
As heat waves sweep across the northern hemisphere, we can’t help but think about the current state of the planet. June 2022 saw record-high temperatures over the planet’s land areas—particularly in Europe, the UK, the US, and China. These land temperatures have increased by more than 1.5°C since the 1980s.
To help raise awareness about climate change and its range of impacts—and to encourage everyone to turn up the pressure on our political leaders—we’re discussing heat waves and their significance in our lives, the state of the planet, and the expansive topic of climate change. And perhaps most importantly, we’re sharing a few tips on how to adapt and stay safe as waves of record-high temperatures continue to sweep through our hometowns.
How Climate Change Leads to Heat Waves
Extreme weather events are one of the most apparent consequences of climate change. But it’s important to note that climate change and weather are not one and the same. What do we mean by that?
There’s no denying that climate change has caused global temperatures to rise over the last few decades. Across the world, the number of warm days (exceeding the 90th percentile) has doubled over the last 60 years, such that record highs occur twice as often as record lows. By mid-century, The National Climate Assessment estimates an additional 20-30 days over 90°F (32.2°C) in most areas.
It’s tempting to think that climate change equals heat waves. But the reality is that heat waves are just one adverse effect of climate change. Some areas may not feel the heat, but instead, get hit with other extreme weather events such as winter storms and flash floods.
In general, this rising temperature trend means longer, hotter summers and shorter, milder winters. In those summer months, you can expect to encounter scorching heat waves, as many of us are experiencing now. At the same time, this warmer air causes more moisture to evaporate from the earth’s surface into the atmosphere. This trapped moisture in the atmosphere is often released later in the year, which can lead to heavy snowfall and extreme frosts in those shorter winter months. In one year, many people can experience both ends of the extremes.
We say all of this to reiterate the concept that climate change does not only manifest itself as heat waves, droughts, and wildfires. The planet and its ecosystems are delicate and synergistic. They rely on balance and consistent inputs and outputs to thrive and operate as expected. Climate change throws off this balance on a large scale, causing all kinds of complications that transcend seasons and weather types.
The Impacts of Extreme Heat
Extreme heat isn’t just uncomfortable, it can actually lead to additional problems and health risks, some of which are explained below.
- More extreme weather: Heat can pave the way for droughts and wildfires. As explained above, it can also (somewhat surprisingly) lead to flash floods and winter storms. On top of this, cities are prone to experience the urban heat island effect—where roads, sidewalks, and buildings absorb heat, increasing temperatures by an additional 1-7°F. This phenomenon can increase energy costs in cities (for example, air conditioning) and continue the vicious cycle of climate change.
- Human health: Heat waves can cause heat stress in humans, a condition where the body becomes unable to cool itself down. Extreme heat is actually one of the leading causes of weather-related deaths in the US. Extreme temperatures can also impact air quality, increasing the production of ground-level ozone which can damage the respiratory system. These heat-related issues disproportionately impact those who lack access to cooling (often low-income communities) and work outdoors.
- Agriculture: High temperatures directly impact agriculture, as many crops require cool nights to thrive. Livestock animals are also at risk during hot days, as they’re susceptible to heat stress too. Not to mention, droughts and wildfires can have devastating impacts on agriculture and land use on a large scale. All of these factors impact food security, tampering with a system that’s already fragile.
- Energy: High temperatures not only increase the demand for cooling, but they can also lower the efficiency of power lines. This is why heat waves can lead to rolling blackouts. It’s tempting to think that milder winters can “make up” for this increase in energy demand, but modeling predicts that total US energy consumption will continue to increase as our future gets warmer.
Keep in mind that these are just examples of the impacts of heat waves—not climate change as a whole. Warmer temperatures over time have led to (and will continue to exacerbate) changing ecosystems, rising sea levels, and beyond.
How To Adapt and Stay Safe
There are many ways to build resilience against extreme heat, some of which we’ve outlined below.
- Create a heat preparedness plan. For us, as a company, this may look like opening cooling centers for vulnerable communities to gather during periods of extreme heat. For you, as an individual, this may look like getting together with members of your community or workplace to establish a plan (e.g. educating about heat stress and establishing cooling centers) in the event of a heat wave or energy blackout.
- Plant trees, especially in urban areas. Not only will these trees provide additional shade, but they can also actually help cool the air by using the intercepted radiation to create energy for evapotranspiration (the process in which trees “sweat” to cool down). Our design teams have strategically planted trees surrounding our sanctuaries to accomplish this effect.
- Promote the installation of green roofs. As a brand with access to trusted landscape designers, we’ve installed green roofs to reduce the urban heat island effect in our surrounding cities. If you’re able, we encourage you to explore the Cool Roofs and Cool Pavements Toolkit and talk to your companies about investing in one.
- Explore various methods of energy efficiency. This could involve using energy-efficient lightbulbs, turning off all electronic devices when you’re gone for extended periods, only using your device chargers when you actually need them, turning off all non-essential lights, raising the thermostat when you can, or closing the shades. Across our properties, we practice responsible energy management using LEED Certified equipment, smart heating-and-cooling systems, design plans that maximize natural light, shades that reduce heat buildup, and real-time energy monitoring.
While these are great places to get started on the individual and industrial levels, we must also focus our energy on the state and national levels. As always, we encourage you to take action to urge the government to take climate action. To get you started, we recommend the UNEP’s Act Now resource, which outlines specific actions and ideas to help you drive change in your area and turn up the political pressure.