Over the past few years, California has endured one of its driest periods and hottest summers ever. Last year’s summer heat wave was one of the most brutal extreme weather events we’ve experienced. It nearly broke the state’s electric grid and led to immense hardships for our communities.
Extreme Heat & Air Quality
The extreme heat is a direct result of our ever-rising climate crisis. According to a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the world climate has warmed by 1.0 °C since pre-industrial times. Now, not only is the heat itself an increasing concern, but so are the direct impacts linked to heat, such as worse air quality.
High heat and air pollution are harmful to human health, but together, they can be deadly. On days with extreme heat and high air pollution, the risk of death increases by 21 percent. Ozone and particulate pollution increase during a heat wave due to extreme heat and stagnant air, which can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular issues, which increase the risk of death in people over 75, children, and individuals with pre-existing issues.
Extreme Heat in Los Angeles
While all of Los Angeles suffered under the September 2022 heat wave, the heat, and its impacts were disproportionate. In low-income communities with fewer parks, less tree coverage, and neighboring industrial facilities and highways, temperatures can be up to 10 degrees hotter than in affluent areas. A study conducted by NPR analyzed 97 of the most populous U.S. cities and found that in more than three-quarters of those cities, where it’s hotter, it also tends to be poorer. As extreme heat becomes an inevitable weather phenomenon in Los Angeles, low-income communities of color will face an even higher rate of heat-related health issues.
Extreme Heat & the Gride
Another implication of extreme heat is how quickly it can overwhelm our state’s electric grid triggering energy and additional air quality concerns. During extreme heat events, electricity demands increase. Peaker plants and diesel generators are activated to meet power demands and avoid power outages. These generators are fueled with natural gas and run without restrictions, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbating air quality issues and health complications.
Low-income communities exceedingly feel the burdens of an overwhelmed grid. If a power outage occurs, generally, frontline communities experience blackouts first. Gas and energy plants are primarily located in low-income communities of color, so when generators are turned on, they are the first to endure additional air pollution. And higher electricity use means higher bills, which leads to affordability issues for many families.
A Way Forward
Low-income communities and communities of color living at the intersection of poor climate-resilient infrastructure and polluted environments are at the most risk of harmful impacts. With climate change consistently increasing the frequency of heat waves and the number of extreme heat days over the years, cities and the State must pursue adaptation (i.e., cooling centers) and mitigation (i.e., shade trees) strategies. In Los Angeles, the average maximum temperatures in the region are expected to increase by 4-5°F by mid-century and 5-8°F by the late century. But, solutions should address more than heat. Fortunately, in Los Angeles, we are taking steps forward. Thanks to the hard work of PSR-LA, community leaders, and environmental justice organizations, the Climate Emergency Mobilization Office was created to address growing climate concerns.
The intersectionality of climate change implores any strategy must prioritize vulnerable, low-income, and environmental justice communities. We need a resilient energy grid to avoid rolling blackouts and keep the power and water on in vulnerable communities during extreme weather events. Rooftop solar and storage installed in homes can provide energy resilience and keep the power on during power outages. Still, they must be affordable and accessible to low-income households. Microgrids and community-scale solar can provide utility bill relief for community members and provide power for the community. Resilience hubs can act as a community space to provide relief for community members experiencing extreme weather conditions. But, most notably, it’s essential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly if we hope to reduce even the worst effects of climate change. The challenge is the need to reduce the deeply embedded imprint of fossil fuels in our way of life.
- Anderson, Meg, and Sean McMinn. “As Rising Heat Bakes U.S. Cities, the Poor Often Feel It Most.” NPR, NPR, 3 Sept. 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/09/03/754044732/as-rising-heat-bakes-u-s-cities-the-poor-often-feel-it-most.
- California, State of. “Region Los Angeles.” Los Angeles Region – California Climate Adaptation Strategy, https://climateresilience.ca.gov/regions/los-angeles.html.
- Rahman, Mdostafijur, et al. “ The Effects of Coexposure to Extremes of Heat and Particulate Air Pollution on Mortality in California: Implications for Climate Change.” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/10.1164/rccm.202204-0657OC.
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