Daytime highs of 105 degrees grab headlines, but we should be just as worried about something less eye-catching but still deadly — persistently high overnight temperatures.
Heat kills more people than any other kind of weather, and it’s the 80-degree nights that quietly wreak havoc on the human body. Minimum overnight temperatures above 75 degrees leave our bodies unable to recover from the daytime heat. In the 1980s, Long Island had eight days where the temperature stayed above 75 overnight; in the 2010s, there were 20 such days. In one recent heat wave, parts of the New York metro region recorded three consecutive nights of temperatures above 78 degrees. This is critical for people who don’t have an air conditioner, or can’t afford to run the one they have, or have aged and inefficient housing that is impossible to cool.
The cascading effect in the body can lead to heat illness or heat stroke in a matter of days, particularly for those who have underlying health conditions like diabetes or respiratory disease. When the body is unable to control its temperature and the sweating mechanism fails, the natural ability to cool down is lost, leading to damage to the heart, kidneys, brain, and muscles.
My decade-plus of work with communities and individuals at risk for heat exposure has shown that individually, people are taking action to protect themselves. They avoid being outdoors in high heat, organizations cancel or reschedule outdoor events, and people prioritize hydration and use cooling rags to lower their body temperatures.
Yet hospital admissions for heat exposure and deaths from heat stroke continue to rise. This is because protecting Americans from extreme heat is now less about individual action and more about structural improvements.
The Biden administration’s recent executive actions to address extreme heat were not the emergency declaration many hoped was coming. Still, those actions — funding to improve home-cooling environments for the most vulnerable, focusing on communities most at risk, and regulations to reduce occupational exposure to heat — will help. But we can’t stop there.
There is plenty we can do to change our own local structures.
Organizations like Meals on Wheels are face-to-face with at-risk populations every day. They can help save lives from heat just by asking clients how their air conditioner is running. Volunteer fire departments typically know which neighborhoods suffer from energy poverty and can help distribute fans or air conditioning units. Midwives, public health officials, food pantry volunteers, and librarians can be trusted sources of information, demonstrating how to recognize and treat early symptoms of heat-related illness.
What these wonderful networks of local organizations need is more help and support.
Programs like Neighborhood Watch were developed for crime prevention, with U.S. Department of Justice funding. While there is justifiable concern about their effectiveness, the model could help communities cope with extreme heat. When disaster strikes, neighbors are the true first responders. Building and supporting communities of care is how we will protect ourselves and each other from the worst extremes of climate change. Developing, funding and supporting a neighborhood resilience initiative can thread together federal, state, county and local efforts to protect the most vulnerable.
As politicians fiddle while America burns, let’s not wait. The days — and nights — will only get dangerously hotter. We need fewer media reports showing children running through sprinklers, building misunderstanding about the danger of heat, and more action to help our neighbors.
This guest essay reflects the views of Ashley Ward, senior policy associate at The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.