Center for American Progress

It’s Time for Congress To Protect Americans From Deadly Extreme Heat

It’s Time for Congress To Protect Americans From Deadly Extreme Heat

Life-threatening extreme heat is here to stay, but with targeted congressional investments, its public health and economic impacts—felt most acutely by low-income communities and people of color—don’t have to be.

A man looks at a digital thermometer on a nearby building that reads 116 degrees Fahrenheit while walking to his apartment, June 2021, in Washington state. (Getty/Nathan Howard)
A man looks at a digital thermometer on a nearby building that reads 116 degrees Fahrenheit while walking to his apartment, June 2021, in Washington state. (Getty/Nathan Howard)

Once again, the summer has been a barrage of broken records. Cities and counties across the United States are hitting their highest temperatures to date—104 degrees Fahrenheit in Reno,1 108 degrees in Seattle,2 118 degrees in Palm Springs3—as reservoirs in the West fall to their lowest water levels yet.4 Meanwhile, the 2021 fire season rages on, with more than 3.6 million acres burned and counting.5

What truly sets this year of extreme heat apart, however, is the clear opportunity that exists for the federal government to do something about it. As Congress continues to negotiate the policy details and funding levels of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better package, lawmakers must include sufficient investment in lifesaving heat mitigation and carbon and local pollution reduction measures. Without this congressional intervention, extreme heat will only continue to result in devastating public health and economic impacts—the brunt of which are experienced by Black, Latino, Indigenous, and other people of color, as well as those living in low-income and disadvantaged communities.

The public health impacts of extreme heat

On average, heat waves are responsible for more deaths every year than any other extreme weather event—both globally and domestically.6 In June, there were some 800 deaths7 attributed to the record-shattering heat wave in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, with more than 3,500 people in the United States admitted to the emergency room for heat-related illnesses.8 Most at risk to the health impacts of extreme heat are low-income people; Black, brown, Indigenous, and other people of color; and those without access to air conditioning or safe and adequate shelter.9

The disproportionate vulnerability of these populations is in part because of a lack of access to green spaces and tree cover. Low-income urban neighborhoods can have up to 40 percent less tree cover than communities where only 10 percent of residents live below the poverty level.10 Neighborhoods in which a majority of residents are people of color have one-third less tree cover, on average, than white communities—regardless of their income.11 Without the natural cooling provided by tree cover and green spaces, low-income communities and communities of color become urban heat islands,12 experiencing temperatures up to 7 degrees higher during the day and 22 degrees higher at night than their wealthier, whiter counterparts.13 These disparities are the product of a long legacy of environmental racism and segregationist housing policy, including redlining, in the United States, which unfairly denied communities of color access to home mortgages and directed investment away from Black, Hispanic, and immigrant neighborhoods.14

People of color and low-income people are also less likely to live in energy-efficient buildings or to have functioning heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) systems.15 During a heat wave, these individuals quickly become unsafe in their own homes, and while local officials often advise people without air conditioning to take shelter in public cooling centers, cooling centers aren’t always accessible for those who have disabilities or who lack affordable access to transportation.16 During the COVID-19 pandemic, these centers are also a less viable option for people with preexisting health conditions or other illnesses.17

Even the individuals who do have air conditioning may not have the financial means to use it. In 2018, 1 in 3 households faced challenges meeting their energy bills.18 African American households are the most affected, accounting for nearly half of the energy-poor households in the United States, followed by Latino households.19 In this way, underlying economic inequities exacerbate public health risks, with some households forced to forgo air conditioning to cover the cost of other basic life necessities, such as food and rent.

In states such as Florida, this trade-off will prove particularly deadly. Cities in Florida, on average, experience up to 40 dangerous heat days, or days exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit, each year; by 2050, that number is projected to jump to more than 170 dangerous heat days each year—more than any other state.20 To ensure that all residents are prepared to manage this extreme heat, The CLEO Institute, a Miami-based climate justice organization, is working with Duke Energy21 and advocating that other power companies serving Florida limit the number of power disconnections due to nonpayment during hurricanes and extreme heat, support energy efficiency improvements, and provide energy bill assistance.22

“Far too many families face astronomical energy bills, in part due to the lack of robust energy efficiency programs offered by major utility companies such as TECO Energy, Florida Power and Light, and Orlando Utilities Commission,” Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director at The CLEO Institute, shared with the authors of this issue brief. “It’s past time that the Florida public service commission and our energy providers worked alongside residents to address energy burdens.”23

The economic impacts of extreme heat

The public health impacts of extreme heat, then, have resounding economic consequences, particularly when it comes to the workforce.24 In one study from July, researchers found that hotter temperatures significantly increased the likelihood of both indoor and outdoor worker injury in California.25 It was estimated that from 2001 to 2018, hotter temperatures in the state caused about 20,000 additional injuries per year.26 Given their long and direct exposure to sunlight, migrant farmworkers—many of whom are low-income people of color—are disproportionately at risk,27 dying of heat-related illnesses at roughly 20 times the rate of other civilian workers.28 When the health and safety of workers are compromised, so too are the productivity and revenue streams of the companies for which they work.

The impact of extreme heat on productivity extends to tomorrow’s workforce as well, as heat exposure has been found to inhibit student learning and performance in the classroom.29 One study found that high school students in New York City were 12.3 percent more likely to fail an exam on a 90-degree day than on a 72-degree day.30 Yet more than 40 percent of school districts in the United States—the majority of which are primarily attended by low-income students and students of color—do not have adequate air conditioning in at least half their buildings.31 The number of hot school days thereby contributes to the racial achievement gap, further obstructing the access that students of color have to learning and professional opportunities.32

Extreme heat also destabilizes the economic output of entire industries, perhaps most notably in the agricultural sector. During the 2011 heat wave, for example, farmers had no choice but to leave swaths of land barren during the growing season due to sweltering temperatures and incredibly poor soil conditions. The heat wave is estimated to have cost more than $14 billion in damages,33 including more than $1 billion in livestock losses.34 This year, crop yields in the western United States are already expected to suffer a similar fate,35 as are fish populations.36

Putting today’s extreme heat in context

These impacts of extreme heat—in all their severity—are the consequence of about 1 degree Celsius of global warming since the preindustrial era.37 Because the effects of warming are felt long after greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere, the extreme heat that is blanketing the United States today is going to get worse before it gets better—and getting better is far from a guarantee.

Scientists estimate that, without aggressive and immediate emissions reductions, the world is on track to reach 3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.38 This trajectory of warming is likely to drastically accelerate and intensify heat waves in almost every region across the globe, including in the Northern Hemisphere, according to the Sixth Climate Assessment, which the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued this month.39

Along the way, the climate will also begin to pass invisible “tipping points”—points of no return—in which melting permafrost, receding forests, or collapsing ice sheets trigger positive feedback loops of runaway emissions.40 For example, extreme heat increases the risk of wildfires and drought, both of which decimate forests; when forests shrink, they are no longer able to store carbon dioxide. This additional concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere then warms the planet further and causes more frequent and intense heat waves. The heat wave in the Pacific Northwest shattered records to such an extent—a once-in-1,000 year event, according to climate models41—that some scientists are wondering if the Earth’s climate system has already reached one of these tipping points.42 If that’s the case, then extreme heat events will continue to increase in frequency and severity at a rate beyond what climate models are currently projecting. Even if a tipping point hasn’t been reached yet, heat waves of similar proportions are expected to occur every 5 to 10 years by 2050, should the Earth continue on its current trajectory of global warming.43


Altogether, this means that: 1) the United States cannot afford to miss another opportunity to invest in climate action; 2) climate mitigation measures alone are not enough; and 3) climate solutions must center equity and justice to reduce the disproportionate levels of pollution and climate change risks in communities of color and low-income areas.44 In addition to incentivizing the significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,45 Congress must dedicate funding toward helping the country—particularly people in low-income communities and communities of color—adapt to extreme heat. Congress must also ensure that the Build Back Better investment package supports President Biden’s historic commitment to deliver 40 percent of all benefits from climate, clean energy, and infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities.46

Specifically, Congress should invest in the following priorities:

Heat stress mitigation

  • Green spaces: Increasing the concentration of and access to green spaces in communities is a straightforward, nature-based solution for mitigating extreme heat and other climate change effects. Consistent with the recommendations put forward by the White House Environmental Justice Council, Congress should direct additional investments to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Department of Energy (DOE) to increase tree planting in communities, install green roofs, and support other related green infrastructure initiatives.47
  • Financial assistance program: Relatedly, Congress should enact the Preventing Health Emergencies and Temperature-related (HEAT) Illness and Deaths Act.48 Reintroduced in July 2021 by Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Alex Padilla (D-CA), the bill would, among other provisions, establish a $100 million financial assistance program to fund community projects that reduce the health impacts of extreme heat. The program is designed to prioritize projects in historically disadvantaged communities and communities with heat disparities that are associated with race and income.
  • Reconnecting communities: During a heat wave, the stagnant air over a community will trap whatever fine particulate matter and other pollutants are being emitted, creating a thick layer of smog.49 Investing in the expansion of public transit would reduce highway dependency and help minimize the air pollution from fossil fuel-powered cars, thereby mitigating respiratory health impacts.
  • Energy assistance: Congress must also support the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to subsidize the weatherization and energy costs of households, including those that rely on air conditioning to ensure healthy and safe living conditions during heat waves. The program itself should be updated so that it supports the purchase of home cooling systems, such as air conditioning units and heat pumps. In a March 2021 letter to congressional leadership, the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform called for Congress to direct an additional $7 billion to this program.50
  • Heat stress mapping: To best address extreme heat, policymakers will need to understand where its impacts are—and will be—most prevalent. To that end, Congress should invest in the development of improved heat stress data collection and mapping to ensure the populations most at risk are both identified and prioritized for federal support. Specifically, Congress should invest in expanding and strengthening the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS); require the NIHHIS to study extreme heat threats and recommend strategies that will improve preparedness and address environmental justice and data gaps; and enhance interagency coordination to mitigate heat risks, as recommended in the HEAT Act.51

Building electrification

  • Green school infrastructure: Public schools will need to retrofit their buildings with energy-efficient HVAC systems, rooftop solar installations, all-electric appliances, and other decarbonization technologies necessary for electrification. Congress should dedicate long-term federal funding to advancing this kind of green school infrastructure so that schools are able to provide cool, healthy, and productive learning environments for all students.52
  • Heat pump incentives: Heat pumps are a critical tool for building electrification and offer an energy-efficient alternative to traditional air conditioning units. To prevent air conditioning units from causing additional atmospheric warming through their emission of refrigerants and other greenhouse gases, Congress should incentivize the purchase and installation of heat pumps, such as through a new consumer rebate program.53 A heat pump consumer rebate program would accelerate the adoption of affordable, energy-efficient cooling systems, particularly among low-income homeowners and renters, while also producing net gains for climate mitigation.

Energy efficiency

  • Demand response: As an increasing number of households are equipped with air conditioning units, Congress should also fund educational outreach programs to increase the use of demand response among energy consumers. When temperatures skyrocket, people rely on being able to crank up their air conditioning. That surge in electricity demand can prompt a surge in electricity prices, exacerbating energy poverty and potentially overloading the power grid.54 Through demand response, energy consumers can shift their electricity use to off-peak hours and avoid blackouts and price hikes.
  • Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program (EECBG): The EECBG provides grant funding to states, tribes, and communities to develop and implement energy efficiency projects and help households realize energy cost savings. The Equitable and Just National Climate Platform has called for Congress to reinstate and direct an additional $3.9 billion to this program.55
  • Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP): Similarly, the WAP supports low- and middle-income homeowners with energy efficiency improvements to minimize their energy use and utility bills. However, the program does not cover the cost of making outstanding home repairs, which can make energy improvements too expensive to meet the program’s cost-benefit tests. This creates a barrier for low-income homeowners and renters, who don’t have the means or authority to keep up with essential home repairs. The WAP should therefore be expanded to cover home repairs that are a prerequisite for efficiency and weatherization upgrades, such as roof and siding replacement.56 To meet current household needs, the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform has called for Congress to provide at least $7 billion in funding for the program.57
  • Energy-efficient and climate-ready affordable housing and community development: Alongside funds for energy efficiency upgrades, Congress should invest in building additional energy-efficient, climate-resilient, and transit-oriented affordable housing and infrastructure. Programs through which this funding could be directed include the Community Development Block Grant Program, Community Development Financial Institutions, the Housing Trust Fund, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program.


Year after year, the United States will continue to surpass record-breaking temperatures. For too many low-income people and people of color, the availability of federal investments in heat-stress mitigation, building electrification, energy efficiency improvements, and other actions to reduce carbon and local pollution will be the difference between life and death.

While extreme heat is here to stay, its debilitating public health and economic impacts don’t have to be. As Congress mobilizes around President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, it has the tremendous opportunity—and equally, the tremendous responsibility—to invest in federal programs that will equip all Americans not only to survive this new normal but also to prosper in safe and healthy communities.

Elise Gout is a research associate for the Energy and Environment team at the Center for American Progress. Cathleen Kelly is a senior fellow for Energy and Environment at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Yoca Arditi-Rocha from The CLEO Institute, as well as Jarvis Holliday, Meghan Miller, Nicole Lee Ndumele, Keenan Alexander, and Trevor Higgins of CAP, for their contributions to this issue brief.


  1. Terell Wilkins, “Reno, Las Vegas seeing record high temperatures as part of historic weekend heat wave,” Reno Gazette Journal, July 10, 2021, available at
  2. Neil Vigdor, “Pacific Northwest Heat Wave Shatters Temperature Records,” The New York Times, July 29, 2021, available at
  3. Alejandra Reyes-Velarde and Faith Pinho, “Blistering heat wave sets record temperatures across California,” Los Angeles Times, July 11, 2021, available at
  4. Timothy O’Brien, “Can the Southwest Survive With Less Water?”, Bloomberg, July 18, 2021, available at
  5. National Interagency Fire Center, “Year-to-date statistics,” available at (last accessed August 2021).
  6. Tanya Lewis, “Why Extreme Heat Is So Deadly,” Scientific American, July 22, 2021, available at
  7. Bob Berwyn, “A Week After the Pacific Northwest Heat Wave, Study Shows it Was ‘Almost Impossible’ Without Global Warming,” Inside Climate News, July 7, 2021, available at
  8. Paul Schramm and others, “Heat-Related Emergency Department Visits During the Northwestern Heat Wave – United States, June 2021,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 70 (2021): 1020–1021, available at
  9. Carina Gronlund, “Racial and socioeconomic disparities in heat-related health effects and their mechanisms: a review,” Current Epidemiology Reports 1 (3) (2014): 165–173, available at
  10. American Forests, “Nationwide Evaluation of Tree Cover Shows Huge Opportunity to Reduce Heat Exposure and Boost Air Quality and Employment,” Press release, June 22, 2021, available at
  11. Ibid.
  12. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Learn About Heat Islands,” available at (last accessed August 2021).
  13. American Forests, “Nationwide Evaluation of Tree Cover Shows Huge Opportunity to Reduce Heat Exposure and Boost Air Quality and Employment.”
  14. Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich, “How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering,” The New York Times, August 24, 2020, available at
  15. Ariel Drehobl and Lauren Ross, “Lifting the High Energy Burden in America’s Largest Cities” (Washington: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, 2016), available at
  16. Seema Nayak and others, “Accessibility of cooling centers to heat-vulnerable populations in New York State,” Journal of Transport & Health 14 (2019), available at
  17. Christopher Flavelle, “Coronavirus Makes Cooling Centers Risky, Just as Scorching Weather Hits,” The New York Times, May 6, 2020, available at
  18. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “2015 Residential Energy Consumption Survey,” available at (last accessed August 2021).
  19. Drehobl and Ross, “Lifting the High Energy Burden in America’s Largest Cities.”
  20. Kristina Dahl and others, “Killer Heat in the United States” (Washington, DC: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2019), available at
  21. Duke Energy, “Duke Energy Florida proposal would expand low-income programs,” Press release, July 1, 2021, available at
  22. The CLEO Institute, “Home,” available at (last accessed August 2021).
  23. Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director, The CLEO Institute, personal communication with authors via email, August 4, 2021.
  24. Umair Irfan, “Extreme heat is killing American workers,” Vox, July 21, 2021, available at
  25. R. Jisung Park, Nora Pankratz, and A. Patrick Behrer, “Temperature, Workplace Safety, and Labor Market Inequality” (Bonn, Germany: IZA Institute of Labor Economics, 2021), available at
  26. Ibid.
  27. Union of Concerned Scientists, “Farmworkers at Risk” (Washington: 2019), available at
  28. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Heat-Related Deaths Among Crop Workers – United States, 1992–2006,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 57 (24) (2021): 649–653, available at
  29. Harvard Kennedy School, “Heat and Learning” (Cambridge, MA: 2018), available at
  30. Jisung Park, “Temperature, Test Scores, and Human Capital Production” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2017), available at
  31. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “K-12 Education: School Districts Frequently Identified Multiple Building Systems Needing Updates or Replacement” (Washington: 2020), available at
  32. R. Jisung Park, “Heat wave: Air conditioned schools would narrow the racial achievement gap,” USA Today, August 15, 2019, available at
  33. AARP, “10 Costliest Heat Waves in the U.S.,” available at (last accessed August 2021).
  34. Richard Grotjahn and others, “Chapter 6: Agriculture,” in Jerry Hatfield and Gene Takle, eds., “Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment” (Washington: U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2014), pp. 150–174, available at
  35. Sarah Trust, Ryan Nguyen, and Orla McCaffrey, “Heat Wave Hit Northwest Businesses From Christmas Trees and Doughnuts to Fish,” The Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2021, available at
  36. Hallie Smith, “Video shows salmon injured by unlivable water temperatures after heatwave,” The Guardian, July 27, 2021, available at
  37. Rebecca Lindsey and LuAnn Dahlman, “Climate Change: Global Temperature,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, March 15, 2021, available at
  38. Julie Arblaster and others, “Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility,” in Mathew Collins and Reto Knutti, eds., “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis” (Geneva: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2013), available at
  39. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers, Working Group I Contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” (Geneva: 2021), p. 34, available at
  40. Robert McSweeney, “Explainer: Nine ‘tipping points’ that could be triggered by climate change,” Carbon Brief, February 10, 2020, available at
  41. Sjoukje Y. Philip and others, “Rapid attribution analysis of the extraordinary heatwave on the Pacific Coast of the US and Canada June 2021.”, World Weather Attribution, July 7, 2021, available at
  42. Matthew Cappucci, “Pacific Northwest heat wave was ‘virtually impossible’ without climate change, scientists find,” The Washington Post, July 7, 2021, available at
  43. Philip and others, “Rapid attribution analysis of the extraordinary heatwave on the Pacific Coast of the US and Canada June 2021.”
  44. Trevor Higgins, Elise Gout, and Sally Hardin, “How the American Jobs Plan Delivers Climate Action,” Center for American Progress, April 26, 2021, available at
  45. Trevor Higgins and Elise Gout, “Investing in Clean Electricity to Build Back Better,” Center for American Progress, March 24, 2021, available at
  46. Cathleen Kelly and Mikyla Reta, “Implementing Biden’s Justice40 Commitment To Combat Environmental Racism” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2021), available at
  47. White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, “Final Recommendations: Justice40, Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool & Executive Order 12898 Revisions” (Washington: 2021), available at
  48. The Preventing Health Emergencies and Temperature-related (HEAT) Illness and Deaths Act of 2021, S. ___, 117th Cong., 1st sess. (July 28, 2021), available at
  49. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Smog – Who Does It Hurt?” (Washington: 1999), available at
  50. Equitable and Just National Climate Forum, “Letter to Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Schumer, Minority Leader McCarthy, and Minority Leader McConnell,” March 23, 2021, available at
  51. The Preventing Health Emergencies and Temperature-related (HEAT) Illness and Deaths Act of 2021.
  52. Elise Gout, Jamil Modaffari, and Kevin DeGood, “The Compound Benefits of Greening School Infrastructure” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2021), available at
  53. Trevor Higgins and others, “To Decarbonize Households, America Needs Incentives for Electric Appliances” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2021), available at
  54. Mikyla Reta and Elise Gout, “Advancing Equity Through Grid Modernization,” Center for American Progress, April 28, 2021, available at
  55. Equitable and Just National Climate Forum, “Letter to Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Schumer, Minority Leader McCarthy, and Minority Leader McConnell.”
  56. Kelly and Reta, “Implementing Biden’s Justice40 Commitment To Combat Environmental Racism.”
  57. Equitable and Just National Climate Forum, “Letter to Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Schumer, Minority Leader McCarthy, and Minority Leader McConnell.”

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Elise Gout

Former Senior Policy Analyst

Cathleen Kelly

Senior Fellow

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