Extreme heat is here, and it’s deadly

Gearing up for the fight against a new climate enemy.

In Maricopa County, Arizona, where a high school student named Gabe Arroyo lives, all the houses have roofs covered in solar panels and walls with built-in battery storage. Large metal energy collectors, shaped like satellites, sprout amid cacti in the yards. They follow the sun like flowers throughout the day, gathering as much energy as possible before they close up at night.

Arroyo’s mother, Elena, is the deputy chief environmental marshal in Arizona. One morning in autumn, she took her son and one of his classmates to a power plant on the western outskirts of Phoenix, so they could record a video for a school project on energy and sustainability while she worked. When they left the house, it was already 101 degrees Fahrenheit; temperatures here can often reach up to 130. Everything Gabe wore was a bright cherry-red: jacket and long pants, topped with a fedora. When his classmate commented, Gabe explained that his clothing was solar-reflective, designed to protect him from the heat. Elena wore a solar-reflective green dress and a wide-brimmed hat.

That summer, two fires at the power plant caused blackouts that left millions of people in the area without air conditioning. “Even with all our storage capacity, if the energy-supply system fails, things shut off, especially climate-control systems in buildings,” Gabe told his classmate. “The toll taken by these failures is no joke.”

 

The plant was a graveyard of sustainable-energy technology, all set against the desert’s red-rock formations. According to Elena, county officials did not always prioritize sustainability over politics when choosing energy sources. Gabe recounted the history of the Palo Verde nuclear plant, built in 1976, for his video. Despite being out of use for years, it has never been fully decommissioned and still stored radioactive waste. “It’s not alive anymore,” he said, “but it’s not completely dead, either.” There were other kinds of infrastructure still in use, including parabolic troughs and a series of cylindrical solar towers several stories high. Like nuclear power, solar comes with its own trade-offs; the towers regularly incinerated birds that flew too close, and their deaths could have a large ripple effect in the ecosystem.

It was Elena’s job to uncover the cause of the fires, and she determined, with Gabe’s help, that the solar tower’s operating system was to blame. The technology was designed to be self-combusting in order to minimize its ecological damage. “But this, this will kill a lot of people,” Gabe said, thinking about the power outages. That day, Gabe made a pledge to work toward better energy solutions, ones that did not pit people against the environment.

If Gabe’s promise sounds unusually aspirational, it’s because he’s a character in a comic book created to teach climate literacy and the future of solar energy to Arizona fifth through eighth graders. Drawn Futures: Arizona 2045 was written by Gary Cohn and C. Edward Sellner and drawn by Mauro Mandalari; it is one of several projects by the Center for Science and the Imagination, a multidisciplinary hub at Arizona State University in Tempe that fosters collaboration between scientists, engineers, science fiction writers and others. One of the center’s main goals is to use fiction to devise solutions to not-so-fictional problems. “For us, that means embracing the idea that there’s a variety of possible futures and seeing that as a place for critical thinking,” Joey Eschrich, editor and program manager for the center, told me.  “It’s kind of an empowering idea, that we can still steer the future in some way, that our decisions matter. We’re not running down a prescribed path that’s preordained.”

A parking lot shade structure with a roof composed of solar panels is one example of a forward-thinking heat mitigation strategy that also harnesses the power of the sun.

THE WORLD OF GABE ARROYO and Arizona 2045 isn’t here yet, but it’s quickly approaching. This summer, a heat dome — one of the technical climate terms that has filtered into our vernacular— descended onto the U.S., subjecting most of the Lower 48 states to temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks. In cities without robust strategies for alerting residents to the risks of heat illnesses or easy access to air conditioning, such heat waves can be particularly deadly. In 1995, more than 700 people died in a heat wave in Chicago, when temperatures hit 106 degrees.

Even in historically hot places like Phoenix, in Maricopa County, where deaths caused by heat have climbed, cities are being overwhelmed by the heat. This year, the county issued an “excessive heat warning,” which is reserved for dangerously high temperatures, on April 26 — six weeks earlier than last year. The heat directly contributed to the severity of summer wildfires, too. In Tucson, Arizona, one fire devoured 119,000 acres of the Santa Catalina Mountains, north of the city, and blocked access to one of the few recreation outlets Tucson residents have to escape the oppressive temperatures.

The record-breaking temperatures and massive wildfires were a backdrop to the other tensions of this particularly stressful summer. Arizona was one of the epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic; by August, there had been more than 4,000 COVID-19-related deaths. On May 25, the same day that George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, a young Black man named Dion Johnson was shot in his car by a police officer in Phoenix. Protesters in Arizona subsequently took over roadways and clashed with the police. At an event hosted by Black Lives Matter in Tucson, the temperature reached 103, and volunteers in face masks carried backpacks filled with water, misting the attendees.

 For many, the present is already feeling pretty dystopian.

These epidemics are all connected: In Arizona and across the country, the communities that experience disproportionate police brutality also face the highest rates of COVID-19, the highest levels of unemployment — and the most exposure to heat-related harm. For many, the present is already feeling pretty dystopian.

The U.S. government has chosen short-term economic recovery over the health of its citizens during a pandemic; giant corporations have received billions from an aid bill designed for small businesses; and Congress has had trouble agreeing to extend unemployment benefits for tens of millions of Americans. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank, between March and June, U.S. billionaires saw their wealth increase by more than $584 billion, even as Americans saw $6.5 trillion in household wealth disappear.

But while there are federal agencies tasked with keeping track of deaths related to COVID-19, police violence and unemployment, the U.S. lacks widespread heat-surveillance systems. Nor is any federal agency keeping track of deaths caused by heat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which defines extreme heat simply as summer temperatures that are much hotter than average, estimates that heat is responsible for more than 700 deaths every year, but it relies on data from death certificates, and many counties don’t investigate heat as a cause of death. A study published in April by GeoHealth, a transdisciplinary journal focused on the environment, estimates that the annual number of heat-related deaths is actually closer to 12,000. Even by the CDC’s more conservative count, extreme heat causes more deaths each year than any other weather hazard, including hurricanes, tornados, floods and wildfires.

In many ways, the climate future is already here. It will require an expansion of our imagination, and perhaps a serious look at the past, to figure out what to do next. And as in all good science fiction stories, in the race for climate resiliency, a robot is leading the way.

Left, Ariane Middel is a climate scientist at Arizona State University whose research is offering a deeper understanding of the impacts of heat on the urban environment. Right, MaRTy is a heat-sensing robot that helps Middel measure the Mean Radiant Temperature (MRT), or how humans experience heat in a specific urban location .

IN LATE MAY, I WENT FOR A WALK WITH A ROBOT named MaRTy on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe. There was an excessive heat warning for the day, and with COVID-19 lurking, we both wore face masks. MaRTy’s fit snugly over a GPS device in the approximate location of his face, while mine pressed down on my nose and made it difficult to breathe. As we rolled along a wide cement sidewalk, MaRTy measured the Mean Radiant Temperature (MRT), which calculates the accumulated heat of any location as experienced by pedestrians. The difference between the two temperatures was startling: The weather app on my phone said it was 109 degrees Fahrenheit, but MaRTy determined that, with the sun beating down on us, strengthened by its reflection off a nearby glass building, and with heat radiating from the sidewalk, the actual temperature we experienced was a shocking 165 degrees.

With the sun beating down on us, strengthened by its reflection off a nearby glass building, and with heat radiating from the sidewalk, the actual temperature we experienced was a shocking 165 degrees.

In many ways, MaRTy feels like something from a science fiction future, a robot humans can use to find the path of least heat resistance. Yet he is real enough, built in 2016 by Ariane Middel, an urban climate scientist from a small town in the lush German countryside, who is a professor at ASU. Middel made MaRTy from a series of meteorological sensors that record the MRT, humidity, and the air and surface temperatures. His body, which is pulled around in a red garden cart, is a tripod from which three arms, made from metal pipes, hold sets of heat sensors that resemble eyeballs. Like every other social robot (or human being, for that matter), MaRTy has his own Twitter account, @ASUMaRTy, which chronicles his journeys around the country. His bio describes him as a “Shade Hunter, Tree Hugger, Heat Walker, and Thermal Comfort Expert,” and his followers are mostly urban planners and climatologists.

MaRTy had planned to spend this spring and summer visiting Kuwait and Qatar to study new tools being used to mitigate the urban heat island effect, the phenomenon by which cities trap heat during the day and release it at night. But, like many of us, he was forced to cancel his trip because of the virus. For now, MaRTy’s staying close to home and measuring microclimates around Phoenix, one of the fastest-warming cities in the U.S. The data he collects is key for establishing a baseline for a warming world, in which different parts of the same city can experience heat in dramatically different ways.

According to Climate Central, the Southwest and Alaska are the nation’s fastest-warming regions, but the entire world is speeding to a global temperature increase of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius), a number that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we need to stay under if we hope to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. If we don’t, scientists predict that the impacts will scale up dramatically: Heat waves will become more frequent and intense, 61 million more people will be exposed to drought, biodiversity loss will accelerate, and coastal cities will experience more severe flooding. Even if we prevent that temperature increase — and experts say it’s unlikely — it will still take decades to undo the warming that we’ve already caused.

Some cities have already begun using technology to mitigate rising heat, and MaRTy and Middel are working to determine its effectiveness. Last year, Middel took MaRTy to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, where, in a pilot program, miles of streets were painted with a light gray reflective material called CoolSeal. Officials found that the coating might lower the surface temperature by up to 10 degrees, and Middel was curious whether this approach was working.

Over the course of a summer’s day, Middel and a researcher from UCLA took MaRTy on strolls to measure the temperature of the coated pavement, the sidewalk next to it, and the unpainted asphalt streets. Middel found that even though the surface temperature on the coated pavement was 6 degrees cooler, the change in air temperature was negligible, and a small amount of heat reflected back on to pedestrians. Plus, within weeks of being painted, the coating was soiled and spotted by cars with dirty tires and trees that dropped dark-colored berries, diminishing its reflective quality.

Overall, painting streets with CoolSeal did reduce the urban heat island effect, which, Middel said, is an important benefit. But, much like the technologies in Gabe Arroyo’s fictional world, there are still trade-offs. Middel wondered whether painting the roads was worth the effort and cost, since it was so easily undermined by the other realities of city living. Middel co-published her findings in the journal Environmental Research Letters, writing that cool pavements were one of many “policy panaceas” that are seen as simple solutions for a complex environmental problem. “You need to have a combination of different strategies,” Middel told me. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, cool pavement is going to save everything.’ ”

Another such policy panacea is planting trees — one of the most popular efforts cities are making to lower the effects of urban heat islands. And, to some extent, it’s a good choice, since trees have been shown to reduce heat where canopies are thick and provide extensive shade. But trees aren’t always feasible in the parts of cities where shade is most desperately needed. In a project Middel gleefully titled “50 Grades of Shade,” MaRTy measured the effectiveness of trees, solar panels, umbrellas and other measures urban planners might use to provide some relief from the sun. Middel hasn’t published her results yet, but one of her research assistants told me that there were already some pretty clear conclusions when it came to trees. The trees that provide the best shade are non-native varieties, such as ficus, which provides a thick canopy of wide, waxy leaves. But those trees also need much more water, which makes them a bad choice for a desert city. Native trees, like mesquite, are better for the Phoenix environment, but they take many years to reach a height where they provide any shade at all, and they need room for root growth, which is not always possible in a hot parking lot or along the side of the road. As a result, cities are constantly losing trees to heat stress, making it hard to grow the urban canopy significantly.

A man rests in the shade of one of the few trees in Edison Park, in Phoenix. On this day in late May, the temperature reached 109 degrees Fahrenheit.

INITIATIVES LIKE TREE PLANTING or coating roads are aimed at making cities more livable and preventing the deaths and illness caused by heat. But attending to the urban landscape requires addressing the underlying systemic causes of inequality.

According to a study published this year in the journal Climate, the neighborhoods formed through segregation and redlining are often the poorest and hottest, with the least amount of shade and green spaces.  Edison-Eastlake in central Phoenix, for example, is 79% Latino and has a median household income of around $10,000 — a fourth of the citywide average. Many residents cannot afford the high electricity bills that come with air conditioning, and heat-associated deaths are 20 times higher in Edison-Eastlake than in other parts of Maricopa County.

Two years ago, in an effort to map the hottest parts of the neighborhood, Middel and MaRTy participated in a heat walk organized by ASU researchers, The Nature Conservancy and area residents. On a typical September day — about 100 degrees — dozens of locals turned out to walk three miles around Edison Park and some common pedestrian routes with MaRTy and Middel. They stopped at seven stations along the way to fill out forms describing how they felt. Researchers compared their experience to data MaRTy collected at the same spots.

Eva Olivas, executive director of the Phoenix Revitalization Corp., which focuses on making low-income communities more livable.

Eva Olivas, a native Phoenician who lives a few minutes outside of Edison-Eastlake, attended the event, but, daunted by the heat, decided to watch the walkers from under a ramada. Olivas is the executive director of the Phoenix Revitalization Corporation, a local nonprofit that focuses on community beautification and affordable housing. For over a decade, she has worked to educate Phoenix residents in low-income neighborhoods about the dangers of heat and how some experience it more directly than others. Since 2009, after a spate of heat-caused deaths hit the neighborhoods Olivas works in, PRC has partnered with the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department to host free pool parties and informational sessions on extreme heat. People in these neighborhoods rarely realize that they face disproportionate levels of heat compared to wealthier neighborhoods, and they also underestimate the danger such heat poses. “People were taking the heat for granted,” Olivas told me. “It kind of became our summer mission to make sure that people were safe and informed. The heat in Arizona is not like it was 40 years ago when we were kids. It’s different nowadays. It feels different, and it’s much more intense.”

The walk in Edison-Eastlake resulted in a heat action plan developed in workshops with community residents. Their suggestions included an increase in shade and trees along walking routes, as well as the need for a certified heat responders course to train people in heat-related first aid. When the pavement can cause third-degree burns, for example, where do you lay someone down? The residents have also worked with city developers on a new heat-resilient, mixed-income housing project that is being built to replace the crumbling Section 8 housing, some of which dates to 1942.

Phoenix's primarily Latino, lower-income Edison-Eastlake neighborhood has a disproportionately high rate of heat-related illness and death compared to the rest of the city.

EVEN PEOPLE WHO HAVE SPENT their entire lives in hot climates can miss the signs of heatstroke. What starts with heavy sweating, nausea and muscle cramps can quickly escalate to slurred speech, confusion and seizures — even death.

Human bodies regulate heat in ways that are very similar to the swamp coolers and air conditioners we’ve created to cool us down. On a basic level, air conditioners function by drawing the hot air out of a room and expelling it outside the home. Then they recirculate the cooled air until our thermostats are happy. Our bodies utilize a similar principle. When we get too hot and our blood heats up, our circulatory system expels the heat by pushing the blood to the surface of the skin. The closer the blood gets to the surface, the more it cools. Then we recirculate that cooled blood throughout our bodies, thereby keeping our internal organs from getting too hot. We also sweat — the body’s natural evaporative cooling system. Much like a swamp cooler that blows air over cold water, using the evaporation to make our homes cool and humid, our bodies cool our skin by releasing water through sweat glands, which cools us when it meets movement in the air.

But our bodies can only do these two things for so long. Pumping blood to the surface takes a lot of energy and requires our hearts to work twice as hard as usual. Sweating too much leads to dehydration and a loss of electrolytes. Dehydration causes a drop in blood pressure, which is why, on a hot day, you might feel dizzy when you stand up too quickly. If both of these options go into overdrive, the situation can turn deadly: At some point, we run out of water to sweat, and our blood won’t cool down by rising to the surface of our skin. It’s simply too hot outside, and the air cannot carry the heat away from our skin quickly enough. Like anything else that expends energy — computers, phones, cars — we’ll eventually overheat. Our internal temperatures will soar too high, and if not dealt with immediately, this can lead to heart, brain and other organ failure.

 A study in 2016 by ASU researchers found that the severity of the summer heat didn’t necessarily correlate to more deaths, but an increase in the homeless population might have.

This is heatstroke, and the elderly are particularly susceptible to it. Seniors have a harder time regulating heat or knowing when they are overheating; many who die from heat live alone, where there is no one to notice the symptoms. Similarly, people who are homeless are at high risk. A study in 2016 by ASU researchers found that the severity of the summer heat didn’t necessarily correlate to more deaths, but an increase in the homeless population might have. As the number of unhoused people in Maricopa County has grown — from 5,700 in 2016 to 7,400 in 2020 — this represents a growing danger. Even so, these groups don’t account for all of the heat-related deaths in Maricopa County, and researchers have struggled to figure out who else has been overlooked.

Last year, Patricia Solís, a geographer and researcher at ASU, was working on a map to help public health officials and area nonprofits determine whether money from utility-assistance programs, like the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), was reaching those most in need. Using data from the Maricopa County Public Health Department, Solís mapped out all the indoor heat-associated deaths and overlaid it with a map of residents who had been receiving assistance. At the bottom right, she noticed a cluster of deaths where few residents were using utility assistance to pay their energy bills.

One day, Solís, a devoted mapper who keeps the satellite view of Google Earth pulled up on her phone whenever she goes out, noticed a large white spot on her map as she drove past Mesa, which is part of Maricopa County. Curious, she pulled over and zoomed in on her phone to find an area full of mobile homes. With surprise, she realized that it was also the location of the mysterious cluster. “It was literally just concrete and roofs,” she told me. Solís began to explore and discovered that much of the city was filled with mobile home parks. 

Composite view of a mobile home park in Mesa, Arizona.

In Mesa, palm trees speckle the skyline, giving the town a vacation-y feel, but little functional shade. In one of the mobile home parks I visited, hundreds of rectangular homes were densely packed on asphalt with very few trees. The parks vary widely in condition, as do the homes, which range from elderly trailers to modern manufactured houses. Newer models have amenities like air conditioning and can be well insulated, but mobile homes built before 1974, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development set federal standards, tend to be poorly insulated and made from materials that are entirely inappropriate for a desert, like metal. Still, mobile homes provide affordable housing for lower-income residents and retirees, who often live on fixed incomes, and they make up a high percentage of the housing stock in Mesa.

Solís decided to study how heat impacted the residents of mobile parks across the city. Throughout last summer, she worked with 60 mobile home residents in East Mesa to understand how they were affected by the heat. Over videochat, she described the range in homes to me. “You might see a snowbird coming from Minnesota, you know, in a pretty nice modern home that’s parked there that they just bought, next to an old unit from 1970 and the window AC unit is out, next to a guy living in an RV paying for his own chemotherapy and dreaming of living on a boat,” Solís said. “True story. I’m thinking of actual people when I say that.”

In Maricopa County, people who live in mobile homes make up just 4.9% of the county population, but in 2019 they accounted for 40% of indoor heat-associated deaths. 

Solís monitored each home’s daily temperatures and interviewed the residents about how they stayed cool. One person reported spending $400 a month on electricity, whereas the state’s average electricity bill is $133. Other residents chose to play a sort of heat dance in their homes, moving from room to room as the sun moved through the sky, rationing the air conditioning for the day’s worst hours.

Solís’ map showed that many of the people who died in mobile homes weren’t receiving any kind of utility assistance — which was surprising, because heat deaths are over-represented in these communities. In Maricopa County, people who live in mobile homes make up just 4.9% of the county population, but in 2019 they accounted for 40% of indoor heat-associated deaths. Solís discovered that a trailer on wheels does not qualify for LIHEAP, because the government doesn’t consider it a house. In parks where the mobile home manager, not the individual residents, pays the bills, the residents have difficulty qualifying for aid.

Left, a traditional adobe building in the historic Barrio Viejo neighborhood in Tucson, Arizona. Right, Xavier Fajardo tries to stay cool in the excessive heat outside his family’s apartment near Edison Park.

IT’S NOT SURPRISING THAT MOST PEOPLE’S HOMES demonstrate a way of thinking about construction that doesn’t match a desert lifestyle; for at least a century, housing and other aspects of Southwestern urban geography have reflected tastes developed for the East. Up until the late 1800s, homes in cities like Tucson were built with the desert environment in mind. Sonoran-style row houses were made from locally sourced saguaro ribs with thick adobe walls of mud and straw. Homes had high ceilings, sometimes with transom windows to let the heat escape. Doors on either end of a shotgun-style layout allowed for natural cross-ventilation. These houses retained heat in the winter and stayed cool during the hot summer.

A few remnants of this more climate-adapted building style can still be found in parts of the Southwest, mostly in areas that have gained historic preservation status. Barrio Viejo, a protected neighborhood near downtown Tucson, has one of the largest concentrations of original urban adobe architecture in the U.S. The streets are lined with row houses, whose front doors open onto the street. Some have fallen into disrepair, with exposed adobe bricks and sunken roofs, while others have been restored as the neighborhood has become gentrified, and are now painted in vibrant colors like turquoise, lime-green and coral.

The newcomers wanted something more “American”: brick houses with pitched metal roofs and green lawns. 

Lydia Otero, a historian who grew up in Tucson, quoted an architect in her book La Calle who described Barrio Viejo as an example of “man’s resourcefulness in solving the problem of survival in the hostile climates of the Southwest.” But by the 1900s, more and more Anglos had moved to Arizona, and this style of architecture, which was associated with Mexican-Americans, became undesirable. “Transplanted ethnocentric ideas eventually transformed the physical landscape in ways that expressed the newcomers’ desire to expunge Tucson’s ‘foreign’ characteristics — its Mexican past and people,” Otero wrote. The newcomers wanted something more “American”: brick houses with pitched metal roofs and green lawns. Even though buildings like these were quick to heat up, slow to cool down, and required massive reserves of water, they began to spread throughout the city. By the late 1960s, many of the desert-adapted houses that kept the Southwest sustainable were paved over for an urban renewal project that systematically displaced the city’s Mexican-, Chinese- and African-American residents.

Around the same time, air conditioning became increasingly affordable, leading to a population boom in hot-weather states like Arizona and Florida. Currently, 87% of all homes in the U.S. are equipped with some form of air conditioning, access to which is one of the greatest defenses against extreme heat. But as Arizona 2045 makes clear, air conditioning comes with expensive ecological trade-offs. In urban areas, it creates an inescapable feedback loop, contributing to the urban heat island effect by discharging waste heat into the city and raising air temperatures at night, increasing the need for even more air conditioning.  More and more people living in hotter and hotter cities will further strain power grids.

“If you were to look historically at Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde, the ways in which you’re kind of designing for the various times of years, understanding sun paths, that’s just inherent in Indigenous architecture.”

There are alternatives, however, most of which require a return to place-based architecture. Sonoran-style housing was preceded by Indigenous architecture, which was developed to be in tune with the environment. “If you were to look historically at Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde, the ways in which you’re kind of designing for the various times of years, understanding sun paths, that’s just inherent in Indigenous architecture,” Joseph Kunkel, a Northern Cheyenne citizen and executive director of the Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab of the MASS design group, told me. “Understanding your place, your context — that was designing for climate resiliency.”

Kunkel has worked on several housing projects that incorporate both cultural and environmental characteristics. Housing, like many other programs in Indian Country, is plagued by federal underfunding and a lack of consideration for Native culture or tradition. And much of the affordable housing in places like the Navajo Nation exists in the form of mobile homes. According to the CDC, in addition to poor housing — and perhaps because of it — extreme heat impacts Native Americans more than any other ethnic group in the United States.

In 2006, Kunkel’s partner started a project called the Elder Hogan Homes Initiative, which collaborated with Navajo elders to create low-impact and “super-insulated” housing that functioned off-grid with the help of a solar panel. “Not because it is something cool to be doing,” Kunkel pointed out, “but because of the lack of access to the grid as a whole.”

Kunkel thinks a hybrid between Indigenous and Western architecture styles could lead to more sustainable designs, ones that incorporate modern technology to achieve the same qualities found in the place-based architecture perfected by Indigenous people over thousands of years. “It’s not rocket science,” Kunkel told me. “It’s just things you should be doing when designing a building.” In some instances, it is as simple as using a high-quality insulation that, though more expensive to install, lowers cooling and heating costs, working much the way natural adobe has for millennia. In order to have affordable housing, you need architecture that makes energy bills affordable, too. “I look at air conditioning and these cooling systems as a Band-Aid,” Kunkel said. “I mean, we’re trying to cool a building that was improperly designed for its climate. How do we start to really think about ways of super insulating and creating passive-solar housing, so we can actually prevent the need to have to cool a home unit for a family that cannot afford it?” If we can’t do that, he said, then we’ve failed.

A car thermometer still reads 110 degrees after 6pm on an extreme heat advisory day in May.

WESTERN HOMES, WHETHER LOCATED in the rapidly warming desert, on coastlines with rising sea levels or amid the fire-prone wildland-urban interface, are increasingly susceptible to climate change. Every summer, federal and state agencies deploy thousands of firefighters to protect residents and their property, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) responds to floods, hurricanes and other disasters. Extreme heat, however, is entirely unlike these. Where most weather catastrophes can be neatly tied to specific events that cause severe destruction, heat is invisible, everpresent and slow-moving, silently stealing lives as summers intensify.

“Heat is a little bit different. Heat requires a new set of departments and disciplines to come together in a way that they haven’t before.” 

Ladd Keith, a researcher at the University of Arizona who works at the intersection of urban planning, governance and climate change, told me that while those other climate disasters will surely get worse, we at least have some governance structures to deal with them. “When those risks start to increase, you already have professionals in place and legal frameworks in place to kind of tweak them and respond to them,” Keith said. “Heat is a little bit different. Heat requires a new set of departments and disciplines to come together in a way that they haven’t before.” Keith wants the federal government to form a heat agency that would coordinate resources on a national scale, deploy heat responders to rural communities and cities during heat waves, and be part of a long-term plan for heat. Urban planners and public health officials need a nexus of collaboration with other stakeholders, he said. While some of this work is happening locally in historically hot cities like Phoenix, much of the country is completely unprepared.

In addition to the persistent risks of summer heat, there are also disaster scenarios to worry about. Imagine Phoenix in the middle of a heat wave when a blackout occurs, as in Arizona 2045. Perhaps a cyber attack causes a grid failure, or the power is shut down to prevent wildfires, as happened last year in Northern California. David Hondula, a researcher at ASU, recently interviewed Phoenix residents about their possible response to a blackout. He discovered that most people planned to stay in their homes, leaving only if the outage lasted unusually long and their homes became dangerously hot. At that point, the resulting mass exodus would cause gridlock that could trap thousands of people on the interstate in the middle of the desert. And gas pumps need electricity, so once cars ran out of fuel and their air conditioners shut off, the situation could become deadly.

A disaster of that nature is certainly important to plan for. Should it occur, it might be possible to activate FEMA, much the way that it has been used for the coronavirus. But that doesn’t help the thousands of people who are already dying from extreme heat every year.

There are indications, however, that political interest is growing around the issue. In July, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., introduced a bill titled the Preventing Health Emergencies And Temperature-related Illness and Deaths Act, or HEAT Act. It proposes establishing a committee drawn from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Agriculture, among others, to strengthen interagency efforts to address the hazards caused by heat. The committee would be run under the National Integrated Heat Health Information System, which was created under the Obama administration to distribute information and fund heat research. The bill would establish a $100  million grant program for community projects to reduce the impact of extreme heat, and authorize the committee to study heat-related gaps and improve warning systems. The legislation is unlikely to pass, but its existence implies that people outside of historically hot states are starting to take note.

Scott Mechlin waits to offer cold water and shade to passersby at one of the several Heat Relief Stations operated by the Salvation Army around Phoenix.

TO ADDRESS EXTREME HEAT and the other daunting problems of climate change, we need to think in ways we haven’t before. As it is, the people doing the planning, whether in imaginary worlds or real ones, tend to be the most powerful. If the coronavirus pandemic is any indicator, the wealthy will insulate themselves from the warming climate, while millions of others suffer. But what if we sought out those most impacted by climate change and asked them to advance solutions?

Science fiction writer and physics professor Vandana Singh asks herself that question often. She’s part of a project called the People’s Climate Report, which aims to offer a ground-level perspective on climate change from the people most affected by it. She also works with the Center for Science and the Imagination, which developed Arizona 2045, to bring marginalized voices to the fore in climate fiction. Singh, who grew up in New Delhi, India, is working with five Indian authors on climate fiction related to their experiences; three are from Indigenous communities and two are from the Dalit caste, the lowest in the Indian social hierarchal system.

Singh thinks that if we want to achieve justice in any area — whether climate, economic or racial — we need to listen to the people who will be most impacted. And climate-themed science fiction, or cli-fi, is a powerful way to center those experiences.

Over video chat, Singh told me that science fiction often perpetuates the same social ideas that we’ve grown accustomed to and accept as normal. That might mean it assumes that the future will stay in the hands of global elites, while more and more of the population contend with poverty and extreme heat. A lot of science fiction also has a tendency to imagine technological solutions, while maintaining societal systems that put the privileged in positions to manage catastrophe for everyone else.

“If climate fiction is done the right way,” Singh said, “and we have voices of marginalized people representing a completely different paradigm, then (this) might translate into some kind of action or movement.” After all, one of the difficulties of communicating the impacts of climate change is our inability to imagine what it means for the future.

“If climate fiction is done the right way, and we have voices of marginalized people representing a completely different paradigm, then (this) might translate into some kind of action or movement.” 

Still, Singh is under no illusion that fiction can easily solve the world’s inequalities. “The fact is that we live in very unequal societies with very entrenched systems of power,” she said. “There are people at the top who benefit from the status quo. And they maintain it like that.”

In Phoenix, Chispa Arizona, a Latino organizing arm of the League of Conservation Voters, is one such grassroots effort. In July, they held a bilingual Zoom event called “Is This Heat Normal? ¿Es Este Calor Normal?” At 6 p.m. on the hottest July 30 on record, a patchwork quilt of individual screens showed participants in their living rooms and offices, one sitting in a comfy leather chair and another outside in her yard. Some bobbed their heads to Lizzo’s “Good as Hell,” which was playing on the call.

A few speakers talked about the dangers of heat and suggested ways to safeguard against it. One speaker pointed out that many so-called heat refuges — places where the public can access air conditioning during the hottest hours of the day — had been closed due to the coronavirus. There was only one operating in South Phoenix, where many of the city’s low-income and Latino residents live.

Most of the conversation revolved around community solutions, and how residents could become involved despite the pandemic. Nicolas de la Fuente spoke from a garden wearing a bandanna and a Dodgers baseball cap. De la Fuente is the co-founder and director of a local initiative called Spaces of Opportunity. On a 19-acre site in South Phoenix that had sat vacant for decades, de la Fuente and a coalition of other organizations, including the Desert Botanical Garden, built an incubator farm and a community garden. Now the lot is filled with shade trees, rows of vegetables and a farmers market that provide food for residents. De la Fuente said that developing the lot was complicated by the fact that they had to meet expensive city regulations. But plenty of vacant lots are undeveloped in South Phoenix, and de la Fuente thinks that the city should provide incentives for residents to create community gardens and green spaces. That would significantly assist the city’s goal of reducing the urban heat island effect.

“The more that we have local-level small wins like this, the more we can push for some of the policy changes that we need,” de la Fuente said. “I think that if we multiply these kinds of examples that people can’t ignore us anymore in terms of what needs to be done.”

Vianey Olivarría, the communications director for Chispa, told me that the organization has successfully led previous grassroots organizing efforts in Arizona, including a pilot program for the Phoenix Union High School District to shift the school bus system to electric. Chispa also advocates for renewable energy and recently spoke out against proposed rate hikes during a pandemic; many are already struggling to pay the bills from Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electricity provider. 

Whether they come from community organizers, robot designers or even comic-book characters in red fedoras, the need for solutions is urgent. Shortly after the meeting, Phoenix announced that July had been its hottest month since record-keeping began, averaging 98.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia all reported their hottest (or tied for hottest) July on record. Fourteen other states reported a top-10 hottest July. A future of extreme heat has already arrived, and a way forward must not only be envisioned but enacted.

“If we transition our city and our government into more sustainable solutions, I believe that is what is going to be most impactful for Phoenix to thrive,” Olivarría told me. “Because in 30 years, we aren’t going to be able to live here anymore.”

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

This coverage was supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund.