Global Warming: Why local heat plans are needed to protect city dwellers from life threatening heat waves

By Sylvia I. Bergh

Global warming has been on the agenda of climate change activists and progressive policy makers for decades, and has mostly been associated with extreme weather phenomena such as flooding, hurricanes, and sea level rise.

Global warming has been on the agenda of climate change activists and progressive policy makers for decades, and has mostly been associated with extreme weather phenomena such as flooding, hurricanes, and sea level rise. Less attention has been paid to the effects of extreme heat on vulnerable urban populations who do not have the means to prepare for heatwaves, nor access to vital support that could help them deal with their effects. The deadly heatwaves that struck the United States and Canada, as well as parts of Europe and Northern Africa this past summer, made it clear that we can no longer ignore the danger they represent to human lives. According to the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, seventeen of the 18 warmest years in the global temperature record have occurred since 2001. Several serious heatwaves have killed tens of thousands of people worldwide during this period, including the 2015 heatwave in India that killed around 2,500 people, and the 2003 heatwave across Europe that led to more than 70,000 deaths.

Although heatwaves also aggravate droughts and fuel wildfires, in this article I focus on their impacts on people living in cities. 

Heat Wave Ahead. Getty Images – CanvaPro.

I personally experienced really strong heat first-hand some 15 years ago in Morocco during my doctoral fieldwork. I would spend the weekends in the city of Marrakech to type up my notes and transcribe interview recordings. I found the heat in the city (and in my rented apartment without air-condition) quite unbearable, and was relieved when I could return to the mountains on Mondays, where a cool breeze and natural shade meant that it was more tolerable. 

Climate change impacts, including heatwaves, are not affecting all populations equally. A recent open access study showed that vulnerable populations are experiencing up to five times the number of heatwave days relative to the global average. Increased risk and higher mortality have been associated with those living in urban areas (with high population densities), those over 65 years old, and those with pre-existing cardiovascular and chronic respiratory conditions, as well as diabetes. Elderly people are less able to thermoregulate body temperatures, and often suffer from social isolation. 

To compound the problem, the elderly are often unaware of their own vulnerability and fail to seek help in time or ignore well-intentioned risk communication advice. In care institutions, heat protocols are also not mandatory everywhere. 

Other (partly intersecting) vulnerable groups include people with a lower socio-economic status who cannot afford to install awnings and sun shades, or prefer not to open their windows at night due to noise and security concerns. Construction workers, firefighters, and others in (outdoor) occupations also exhibit an increased risk of experiencing adverse effects during heatwaves. 

I believe that it is the responsibility of national and local governments to protect citizens from heatwaves, in the same way as it is their responsibility to do so in the case of flooding and other extreme weather events. As around 5 billion people – much of the world’s entire population – live in regions where extreme heat can be predicted days or weeks in advance (see IFRC Climate Centre), there is no excuse to not establish national and local heat plans which can be activated at short notice.

Although national (health) heat plans are important frameworks that can guide local action, it is at the local level that such plans can really make a difference for particular vulnerable population groups. 

Some actions can and should be done year round and constitute good climate change adaptation practices anyway, such as greening the cities and urban centres. However, we should be aware that design guidelines to improve the quality of life in the city (for example, installing a cool area within 300 metres’ walking distance from every house) mostly benefit those who can and want to go outside. These are less relevant for older people with mobility issues, disabled people or for those who find walking to a  green space challenging. That is why governments should facilitate access to simple and low-cost solutions such as cooling blankets and cooling scarves, or give subsidies to install awnings or improve temperature regulation in private residences. And they must remove bureaucratic obstacles, such as building regulations that prohibit the installation of awnings for aesthetic reasons. 

Suffering from Heat, Waving Fan. Getty Images – CanvaPro.

At the start of the summer, local governments and their non-governmental partners should run community-awareness campaigns of the heat-related health risks. Finally, some actions, such as providing cooling centres (in malls, libraries, and community centers) and telephone helplines for vulnerable people in need of help, treatment and support, should be implemented during the heatwave itself. According to a study by Saniotis et al. (2015), community resilience can also be strengthened by organizing neighbourhood watches to monitor vulnerable neighbourhoods, improving information dissemination to include disabled or homeless people, and organizing transport to cooling centres. People’s lives depend on the development of well-targeted and roll-out ready local heat plans, and local governments are best placed to implement them effectively.