Markey bill puts heat response on front burner

By MADDIE FABIAN

Staff Writer

Published: 08-06-2023 1:27 PM

Following Earth’s hottest day and likely hottest month on record, a bill reintroduced by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., would address health risks associated with extreme heat.

The “Preventing Health Emergencies and Temperature-Related (HEAT) Illness and Deaths Act” would establish an interagency committee to address extreme heat, commission a study for federal action on heat-health issues, and create a $100 million financial assistance program for community projects establishing cooling centers.

“It’s no coincidence that we’ve seen back-to-back record-breaking heat this summer — it’s the climate crisis announcing it’s at our doorstep,” Markey, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate and Nuclear Safety, said in a statement.

“We need to take bold and aggressive action to combat the climate crisis, but we also need to act fast to protect Americans from the health risks of extreme heat that we are experiencing right now,” he said.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, July 6 was the Earth’s hottest day on record, surpassing the record set in August 2016. July 5 and July 7 were shortly behind, and the first three weeks of the month were the hottest three-week period ever recorded. The meteorological group said it was “extremely likely” that July 2023 would be the hottest month on record.

Further, the organization estimates a 98% likelihood of at least one of the next five years becoming the warmest on record.

In western Massachusetts, data from the National Weather Service showed 25 days with above-average high temperatures, though the month was not the hottest on record here.

“The thing about these extremes is that they’re regional; they’re localized,” said Raymond Bradley, a UMass Amherst geosciences professor and director of the Climate System Research Center, adding that Massachusetts did experience its second wettest July on record.

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“At the same time as we were having extreme rainfall, in southern Europe, they were recording temperatures of 110 and it was ridiculously hot,” Bradley continued. “It was part of this pattern of increasing unusual weather conditions that we’re experiencing.”

Among areas impacted by July’s weather events were agricultural businesses that lost crops to flooding, roads that gave out during the heavy rain and even increased numbers of mosquitoes carrying potentially harmful illnesses, among a host of other issues.

Bradley explained that global warming causes the circulation of the atmosphere to get stuck in certain places. In the case of this past July, the northeastern United States was stuck under an area of low pressure, which causes heavier precipitation. Meanwhile, other parts of the country and globe were stuck under high pressure, causing high temperatures.

In anticipation of more frequent extreme weather events, Markey’s statute addresses health impacts associated with extreme heat, which can include cardiovascular and respiratory problems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, extreme heat events have been the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States during the last 30 years.

Low-income communities, communities of color and Indigenous communities face the brunt of those health impacts, particularly in urban areas. That’s largely due to the “urban heat island” phenomenon, where urban areas have more pavement and less tree coverage, resulting in neighborhood temperatures sometimes more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit higher than surrounding areas.

In addition to higher temperatures, residents of these communities often also lack access to health care and air conditioning, which only worsens heat-related illness and complications.

Last month, municipalities across the Pioneer Valley opened designated cooling areas for community members to catch a break from the heat. Cities and towns also issued advisories with tips including wearing weather-appropriate clothing, drinking plenty of water, limiting sun exposure, and checking in with neighbors who live alone and have medical conditions that make them susceptible to heat.

Markey’s bill, which he first introduced in 2021, would put $100 million toward funding community projects that help reduce the health impacts of extreme heat. The program would prioritize disadvantaged communities.

“We must do more to make sure our communities have the resources they need to survive extreme heat events, especially front-line communities that experience heat effects that are worsened by already unjust racial and economic divides,” Markey said at a July 29 press conference.

The bill would also bolster the National Integrated Heat Health Information System, an interagency system initiated by the Obama administration that works to provide advance warnings and decision support for extreme heat events.

Additionally, the bill would commission a study to identify federal policy and research gaps and provide recommendations around heat-health issues and responses.

“Our planet is sweltering. Our people are suffering. The planet is running a fever,” Markey said.

For Bradley, being as prepared as we can be is only wise.

“Extremes are more likely in the future, and they’re going to crop up in places that are somewhat unexpected,” he said. “You just never know where the next big problem will arise, so we have to have a comprehensive way of looking at extreme weather ... not just heat waves but flooding, wildfires, air pollution and so on.”

Maddie Fabian can be reached at mfabian@gazettenet.com or on Twitter @MaddieFabian.

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