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Congress needs to pay attention to the extreme heat crisis

There is a scene in the movie “Gladiator” where Russell Crowe throws down his weapons, turns to the blood-thirsty audience and says, “Are you not entertained?” Sometimes this is what it feels like to work on heat. I entered this field almost a decade ago, and even at that time, researchers and other climate professionals were pointing out that heat kills more people than any other weather-related disaster in the U.S. They were knocking on doors and sending out invites in February to get people to conduct off-season planning for heat, often with no luck.

This summer, Mother Nature is showing us with vicious force the price of our inaction, particularly from the highest levels of leadership. Congress, I’m looking at you. What we are seeing in images and hearing in stories from around the world is the beginning of a new era on heat. This is no seasonal heatwave; it is a new state of being, and far more devastating than most of us feared.

And we are just getting started. We are only midway through heat season, and forecasters say another heat bomb is headed our way. So, my question is, are we ready now? Is this enough? Has Mother Nature sufficiently captured your attention? Is it finally time to act on heat?

Members of Congress, I hope you are paying attention. It was great to see the president conduct a press conference on the topic of heat, elevating it to the White House podium in a way that I haven’t seen before. And it is certainly true that at least some of the historic investments from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure, Investment, and Jobs Act (IIJA) will make its way down to communities to fund programs to mitigate extreme heat.

But Congress needs to act. Individuals are doing all they can to survive. Scientists have done the hard work of quantifying the impact of heat and providing the terrifying details of the consequences if we fail to act. Our public agency employees are either working non-stop to provide services to their communities or they are, themselves, at risk from heat exposure while trying to do their jobs. But where is Congress? Surely lawmakers see and hear the cries of their constituents.

It is the job of Congress to fully fund the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS). NIHHIS provides critical coordination among federal, state and local entities and acts as the connective tissue for researchers and practitioners on extreme heat. We have a National Hurricane Center and a National Severe Weather Center. We also have a National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) that is designed much like NIHHIS; however, NIDIS is funded at around $14-16 million per year while NIHHIS receives no annual budget allocation from Congress. Why?

FEMA has entered the chat on heat. This year, FEMA declared heat a priority and hosted its first ever Heat Summit. However, it is up to Congress to direct FEMA to modernize its disaster declaration framework to include heat. Federal agencies can’t change the scope of their mission and mandate without congressional approval or direction. Congress also needs to stipulate that dollars allocated to fund mitigation and resilience projects need special considerations for heat-reduction projects because the metrics and indicators for these projects don’t fit cleanly within the current evaluation framework used to award these dollars. 

And we need to consider a cooling standard. Your landlord is required to provide heating. In many cases, the energy companies have moratoriums to prevent shut offs during winter, but there is no equivalent for cooling. No cooling standard means that prisons, schools, public and affordable housing, and nursing and long-term care facilities are not required to have cooling. We have a patchwork of policies to address some of these state-by-state, but there are no federal requirements or minimums to protect our most vulnerable. This seems like a serious policy gap, right?

Individuals and state and local officials are doing their jobs. For many of them, saving themselves or their communities from heat is dominating their lives right now. I can’t imagine what it must be like for local officials. Take a moment to consider having to marshal and coordinate the resources for cooling centers, shelters and other supplies, not for a three- to five-day heat wave, but for 31 brutal days of extreme and unforgiving heat. Imagine doing all of that, and still, people are filling up the burn units and emergency departments, and knowing there are hundreds if not thousands who are suffocating in their homes, and even worse, knowing the mortality from this summer will shock even the most seasoned among us.

These are the warriors. And it is time for Congress to stop being a spectator on extreme heat and get into the fight.

Ashley Ward is the director of Duke University’s Heat Policy Innovation Hub at the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability.


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