As U.S. bakes in heat wave, access to air conditioning has become a public-health and racial-equity issue

Last week unofficially saw multiple days of the hottest average global temperatures on record, as parts of the U.S. baked in a heat wave.

Such sweltering conditions in the U.S., brought on by El Niño and human-caused climate change, can be particularly tough on low-income people and people of color — especially those who lack air conditioning, live in neighborhoods with little tree coverage, or have pre-existing health issues that make them extra vulnerable to extreme heat.

The Census Bureau said Monday that, based on its own data, nearly one in four people in the country were considered socially vulnerable, with “low resilience to extreme heat exposure.” And many of the counties found to have a greater proportion of people vulnerable to extreme heat were located in some of the poorest areas of the U.S., including the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, the Black Belt in the U.S. South, parts of Appalachia, and tribal lands in New Mexico and Arizona, according to a map the agency published.

Outdoor workers, who are disproportionately Black and Latino, are likely to be negatively affected by rising tempeartures, too, as are people incarcerated in prisons and jails without air conditioning and people experiencing homelessness.

In Houston, where summer temperatures are getting hotter — Texas suffered a weeks-long heat wave in June, with that month also being Earth’s hottest June on record, according to CNN — one organization warned in a June 28 Twitter post that “extreme summer heat is threatening Houston area residents more than ever this year.” A construction worker in the Houston region died of hyperthermia last month after collapsing on the job, as did a U.S. Postal Service worker who reportedly collapsed on his Dallas route. 

“Low-income families living in aging homes with inefficient temperature control and poor air quality are most at risk for health and safety challenges,” Rebuilding Together Houston, which said it was providing window AC units to qualifying families, wrote in its tweet.

A Montgomery, Ala., homeless shelter also recently said it was at capacity due in part to rising temperatures, according to the local television news station WSFA. Heat causes more deaths than any other weather event in the country. And while the vast majority of U.S. households are cooled by air conditioning, renters, who are disproportionately people of color and low-income people, are less likely than homeowners to have AC in their homes.

The reality that many households without air conditioning are made up of low-income renters or people of color has caused some to see air-conditioning access as both a public-health and racial-equity issue. In Detroit, where public schools had early dismissals due to heat last month, more than 15% of Black households lack access to air conditioning, compared to less than 4% of white households, researchers at the Brookings Institution said in a July 2022 analysis.

“As climate change makes spells of extreme heat more common across the U.S., policymakers should consider a range of adaptation and mitigation strategies to protect the public’s health and safety,” the researchers wrote. 

For example, policymakers could immediately work to distribute air-conditioning units to homeowners and landlords, they said, but low-income households may not be able to foot the extra electricity costs — making extra utility subsidies a potential necessity, too. 

People living in metropolitan areas of the Pacific Northwest, West Coast and Great Lakes region — which have all experienced heat waves in recent years — are also less likely to have air conditioning in their homes due to experiencing historically mild summers, according to researchers at the Brookings Institution. During the 2021 heat wave in Oregon, when a “heat dome” formed over the Pacific Northwest, many of the 96 people who died of hyperthermia in the state lived in homes without working air conditioning, NBC News reported.

Last week, the World Meteorological Organization, an agency of the United Nations, also forecasted a 90% probability of El Niño conditions — a naturally occurring climate pattern marked by warmer ocean temperatures — continuing throughout the second half of the year, potentially spelling even more record-breaking days of hot temperatures. 

Though El Niño conditions, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced had emerged in June, typically don’t have as much influence on U.S. weather in the summer, “moderate-to-strong” El Niño conditions in the fall and winter can bring wetter conditions to the Gulf Coast and Southern California, and drier-than-average conditions to the Pacific Northwest and Ohio Valley, the agency’s Climate Prediction Center said.  El Niño winters also can increase the chances of hotter temperatures in the northern tier of the U.S.

“The onset of El Niño will greatly increase the likelihood of breaking temperature records and triggering more extreme heat in many parts of the world and in the ocean,” World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a statement. “The declaration of an El Niño by WMO is the signal to governments around the world to mobilize preparations to limit the impacts on our health, our ecosystems and our economies.”

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