Cosponsored by the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, Environmental Justice Committee
Nine of the warmest years on record have occurred since 2005, and approximately 60 percent of the world is expected to experience monthly temperature records every year if greenhouse gas emissions fail to decline. The 2003 European and 2010 Russian heat waves killed an estimated 70,000 and 55,000 people, respectively. This July’s heat wave set all-time high temperature records across Europe, and the deadly heat wave that blanketed much of the United States this summer also broke records. As climate change drives increases in global average surface temperatures, the heat wave season is expanding by as many as 40 days in many U.S. cities. Heat wave-related mortality is expected to increase and will hit hardest our most vulnerable populations, including low-income, disabled, homeless, and elderly residents. Heat waves are a critical public health problem, and the public’s vulnerability to heat waves is strongly influenced by the social and physical environment.
Local governments are on the front lines of responding to heat waves as cities around the globe shatter high temperature records. In urban centers, heat waves are exacerbated by the urban heat island effect, when the built environment absorbs and retains heat. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, absent action to reduce global emissions, nearly one-third of the nation’s 481 urban areas with a population of 50,000 or more will experience an average of 30 or more days with a heat index above 105°F by mid-century, up from just three cities historically. This will expand to more than 60 percent – 300 of 481 cities – by the end of the century. Without additional adaptation or acclimatization, a no-action scenario would result in an additional 9,300 heat-related deaths across the country each year.
But many cities in the United States are taking action. Localities are in the position to make a difference, bearing direct responsibility for decisions affecting public safety, land use, building codes, infrastructure, and public health. Some are investing in urban planning and building strategies, such as cool roofs and increasing tree canopy coverage. Others have developed heat wave emergency response plans and enacted laws requiring landlords to conform with maximum rates to power air conditioning, while considering impacts on the power grid.
Our expert panel of municipal officials, public health experts, and legal scholars discussed innovative strategies localities can take to become “Cool Cities” in a world that is rapidly heating up.
Cynthia R. Harris, Deputy Director, Environmental Law Institute’s Center for State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programs (Moderator)
Mark Hartman, Chief Sustainability Officer, City of Phoenix
Sean Hecht, Co-Director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law
Kathryn Goldman, Climate Adviser, City of Los Angeles
Surili Sutaria Patel, M.S., Deputy Director of the Center for Health Policy at the American Public Health Association (APHA)