In summary

As heat waves become longer and hotter, vulnerable people need cooling immediately. Longer-term interventions must focus on adding shade and changing how buildings are built and land is used. California needs to coordinate these efforts.

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By David Eisenman

Dr. David Eisenman is a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the co-director of the UCLA Center for Healthy Climate Solutions.

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V. Kelly Turner, Special to CalMatters

V. Kelly Turner is the co-director of UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation.

Imagine spending days and nights in triple-digit heat with no air conditioning, shade or a fan. The unrelenting heat makes the inside of your apartment or house feel like an oven. Sleep is impossible. If you don’t get relief, discomfort can accelerate into headaches and vomiting, seizures and coma, even death. 

Many Californians don’t have to imagine inhumane conditions like these. It is what they live — especially those in low-income communities. 

This summer’s record-setting temperatures represent an alarming long-term trend:  Heat waves are growing longer, more severe and frequent because of climate change. Yet we build and run cities — where 95% of Californians live — in ways that make urban temperatures higher and more dangerous. Extreme heat is the deadliest weather-related phenomenon Californians face. And it’s getting worse.

California has been slow to address this growing health and safety crisis. 

It’s been no single person’s job to protect Californians from extreme heat. But Los Angeles appointed its first chief heat officer on June 3. Legislators in Sacramento are considering the same on a statewide level. And in cities that are too small to afford a chief heat officer, counties could appoint or hire someone to do this job. This is the moment to rethink how we protect our most vulnerable residents from extreme heat. 

Short-term, life-saving interventions must be any heat officer’s first priority: Vulnerable people need cooling at home, work and school, immediately. Longer-term interventions must focus on adding shade and changing how buildings are built and land is used. 

We offer three principles to guide a heat officer, as triple-digit temperatures become more common:

Equity must be at the heart of the work. Heat officers must focus efforts where the problem is most severe. Communities of color and low-income neighborhoods suffer disproportionately from extreme heat. Neighborhoods in South Los Angeles send an additional 20 to 30 people to the emergency room on high-heat days, while wealthier neighborhoods a few miles away send two. A greater proportion of people in vulnerable communities become ill or die because of hotter conditions and fewer opportunities to cool down, especially at night.  

Chief heat officers can use building codes and zoning requirements to begin to redress cooling inequities. For example, Assembly Bill 2597 would update the California Building Code to require landlords to provide sufficient cooling, and that cooling must be affordable for tenants and responsible landlords. 

Cooling centers need an equity refresh, too. They must be located where the need is greatest. Better communication with communities can leverage vulnerable people’s comfort with places they already trust. Safe, cool spaces can save lives during heat waves, and can serve as neighborhood resiliency hubs during other emergencies. 

Officers must work as coordinators-in-chief. Many agencies deal with pieces of the heat problem, but we cannot wait for extreme heat policies to evolve across bureaucracies over decades. Chief heat officers must get many pieces moving quickly. They must convene, collaborate and cajole. 

Similarly, public works projects can be tweaked to make them more heat-protective. Some funding gaps could be filled with grants, which might require aligning with the Federal Emergency Management Agency or other federal agencies, or seeking philanthropic partners. 

Heat action plans must be based on evidence and assessable metrics. Researchers in Los Angeles and across California are eager to help inform effective policy. Recent research by the Los Angeles Urban Cooling Collaborative confirms the value of urban cooling tools, such as tree canopies and reflective roofs, in mitigating heat produced by asphalt and other surfaces. When shade plans and other cooling strategies are implemented correctly, roughly one in four lives could be saved. 

Heat deaths often are silent, painful and preventable. Black and brown Californians, our elderly, poor and children are paying for our collective inaction. With the right tools, funding and strategies, chief heat officers can save lives. 

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