California urgently needs to prepare for heat waves by expanding access to cooling. The California Energy Commission has an opportunity to help do so when it votes Wednesday on our statewide building code.
By Amee Raval
Amee Raval is the policy and research director at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jose Torres, Special to CalMatters
Jose Torres is the California director at the Building Decarbonization Coalition, email@example.com.
California urgently needs to take steps to prepare for hotter temperatures by expanding access to cooling — both within communities and within homes.
We must ensure that every community has multiple, easily accessible “resilience hubs” at trusted places such as libraries, community centers and places of worship where community members can access air-conditioned spaces, clean air, backup power and ongoing community services and programs.
We also must ensure that new homes are built to keep families safe as temperatures rise. The California Energy Commission has an opportunity to help do so when it votes Wednesday on our statewide building code — the first in the nation to include heat pumps as a baseline technology.
The natural disaster that kills the most Californians each year is not one that makes for compelling front-page photos. The health consequences of extreme heat play out quietly, and often anonymously. The victims’ names usually do not make the nightly TV news.
This year, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in extreme heat across the West — and as the consequences of climate change intensify, so will heat waves. Millions of Californians — especially working-class communities of color, communities that are hardest hit by pollution, those who are unhoused, and outdoor workers — do not have the resources or the infrastructure they need to stay safe during the temperature extremes we are already experiencing, much less what we will experience in coming years.
Resilience hubs build community, in addition to serving as a lifeline during extreme heat for people who do not have access to cooling at homes, or who cannot afford to run their cooling system. Unlike “cooling centers,” which went underused last year because they were rolled out last-minute and far from the communities they were meant to serve, resilience hubs would provide services year-round, building trust and allowing community members to connect with each other before, during and after disasters hit.
The next step is to begin equipping homes with cooling systems — prioritizing working-class communities of color that are most vulnerable during extreme heat.
Millions of homes in California lack cooling. Only 47% of homes in the San Francisco metropolitan area have air conditioning, and in the sweltering Los Angeles area, 1 million households have no access to cooling. According to research from the University of Southern California, these homes are more likely to be low-income households. Poverty, the researchers found, is an even better predictor of lack of cooling than climate zone.
But installing millions of air-conditioning systems across the state would only increase the climate pollution that is fueling hotter temperatures, because the units spew carbon dioxide into the air. This would lock our state into a vicious cycle.
There’s a better way.
By upgrading homes with electric heat pumps — a highly efficient technology that provides both heating and cooling — we can ensure that households stay cool during the summer and warm during the winter. These units are game-changers for climate because they can replace fossil fuel furnaces in homes, which are a major source of climate and air pollution.
To get heat pumps into the homes of the families most urgently in need of cooling, state leaders should scale up investments in two state programs — the Low-Income Weatherization Program and the TECH Program. These programs are key to supporting low-income and disadvantaged communities in staying safe during periods of extreme heat, while reducing energy use and costs.
Heat pumps should be the standard statewide for any home that is looking to add cooling, or to replace a burned-out gas furnace. In new homes and buildings, especially, heat pumps are the obvious choice.
Hundreds of Americans do not need to die annually from extreme heat — we have solutions available now to keep our communities safe while addressing the fossil fuel pollution that is the root of the climate crisis.