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The heat is on cities — and it’s not going away

Increasingly deadly heat waves demand fixes today and solutions for the long term.

Everett Clayton looks at a digital thermometer on a nearby building that reads 116 degrees while walking to his apartment, on June 27 in Vancouver, Washington.Nathan Howard/Getty

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” Bob Dylan once sang.

And right now, for much of the country, those winds are blowing hot and hotter, thanks to climate change. Records are being set not just in Death Valley but in the Northwest, where nearly 200 people died in the recent unprecedented heat wave. Highways buckled and residents of cities accustomed to cool summer days and foggy mornings stripped store shelves of air conditioners and fans.

Washington state and Oregon have been particularly hard hit, but the suffering has extended to the central Rockies into southern Canada. This week’s heat wave was the fourth in the past five weeks. Forecasters describe what is happening out west as a “heat dome” — an event that is expected to go on for days.


With the heat — combined with drought and overdeveloped wildlands — has come an unprecedented number of wildfires. As of Monday, 80 fires were burning in 13 Western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Even in the greater Boston area, where June is often a cool-ish prelude for a far balmier summer, a record heat wave forced some schools to close and many communities to declare heat emergencies. This year’s was the hottest June ever recorded in Boston’s history.

All this heat is a threat to public health and safety. At least 700 people die of heat-related causes each year in the United States, and tens of thousands more get ill — a toll expected to rise. It’s past time to battle heat waves like the lethal hazards they are.

“Record high temperatures are occurring more frequently in the United States, and climate change is causing heat waves to become more intense, directly impacting human health, including heat-related illnesses and deaths,” noted a paper published last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that looked at the current impact of the climate crisis.


The study analyzed heat-related emergency room visits for Health and Human Services Region 10, which includes Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, for all of May and June — the total was 3,504 visits but 79 percent (2,779) of these occurred during six days (June 25–30), when most of Oregon and Washington were under an excessive heat warning. The mean daily number, researchers found, was more than 69 times higher than for the same period in 2019.

Their recommendation? That health departments “develop and implement heat response plans, identify at-risk neighborhoods and populations, open cooling centers.”

Bostonians have had the good fortune to live in a city with an effective reverse-911 system, alerting residents when a heat emergency is declared, notifying them about nearby cooling centers and swimming pools.

Today there isn’t a city in the nation that shouldn’t have such a plan and be prepared to implement it quickly. Cooling centers can save lives, but as a 2017 study done for the CDC noted, there are also barriers to overcome — transportation to the center, the fear of leaving a pet alone, or simply the stigma of being with a bunch of “old people.” But there are few issues that can’t be solved with public education efforts and good planning — like using schools and community centers in neighborhoods where residents are least likely to have air conditioning.


Longer term, cities can focus on such simple solutions as tree-shaded walkways and green spaces — protecting the ones that already exist and creating and expanding them in neighborhoods that are too often urban deserts. Last year’s successful effort to save the canopy of mature trees lining Melnea Cass Boulevard is a recent case in point. If only every city had an organization dedicated to “speak for the trees.” Some cities around the world are creating micro-forests to counteract heat waves, while others are investing in community cohesion. Research on the deadly 1995 Chicago heat wave has shown that low-income neighborhoods where people know each other well and engage in the community (and can therefore rely on their neighbors for help) fare far better in avoiding deaths of vulnerable people during heat waves. Measures like this that would make city living better anyway are well worth the effort.

Toughest of all — and most critical — will be creating both commercial and residential buildings that are energy efficient and designed to keep cool without the need for the constant buzz of an air conditioning system. That means translating policy into good design and, ultimately, into political commitment.

The danger is that people will look at this summer as some kind of aberration. That would be to ignore a host of scientific evidence that this planet is on a trajectory that political leaders and the public at large are only beginning to take seriously. And as the political debate about much-needed solutions to curb warming drones on, the immediate responsibility of civic leaders is to plan for the worst. The job right now is to save lives. Only planning for — and expecting — inevitable heat waves will do that. We’ve all felt which way the wind is blowing.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.