Extreme Heat During the COVID-19 Pandemic Amplifies Racial and Economic Inequities

Children cool off at a park during a heat wave in Brooklyn, July 2019.

The year 2020 is already on track to be the world’s hottest on record. With the heart of summer fast approaching, the communities confronting the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates, the worst hardships from the ongoing economic crisis, and the most pervasive incidents of injustice and police brutality will have to contend with yet another public health threat: heat waves.

Heat waves are responsible for more deaths than any other weather-related event in the United States. And as climate change warms the planet, they are only projected to become more frequent and more intense. Without further action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the average number of days per year with temperatures above 105 degrees Fahrenheit is expected to quadruple by midcentury. One model found that, under a high-emissions scenario, U.S. heat-related deaths from 2031 to 2050 would be 57 percent higher than they were from 1971 to 2000.

While there is no standard definition for what qualifies as a heat wave, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) considers a heat wave to be a period of marked unusually hot weather that lasts at least three consecutive days. More information on the definition and monitoring of extreme heat can be found within the guidelines produced by the WMO’s Commission for Climatology Task Team.

Most at risk to these increases in extreme heat are low-income communities, tribal communities, and communities of color. These are the same groups of people who endure disproportionate levels of environmental pollution from power plants, industrial facilities, diesel trucks, landfills, and pesticides. They are the people who—without equal access to affordable and quality health care—have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. And they are the people who must continue to mobilize in the face of institutionalized oppression. The recurring threats to health, safety, and quality of life in these communities are not a coincidence but rather the compounding symptoms of systemic racial and economic inequities within the United States.

Protecting communities from heat morbidity and mortality therefore requires a comprehensive understanding of such inequities as well as the enactment of intentionally designed policy and large-scale investments in equitable and just community development.

Factors contributing to heat vulnerability

A number of interacting factors contribute to the vulnerability of people living in economically disadvantaged communities, tribal communities, and communities of color to extreme heat. Unjust living conditions, including high levels of air pollution, the stress of experiencing systemic racism, and decades of inadequate access to nutritious food and affordable health care, have contributed to stark racial disparities in serious chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and hypertension. In addition to making people more susceptible to severe cases of COVID-19, these medical conditions can be exacerbated by extended periods of high temperatures.

Low-income communities and communities of color are often also located in urban areas, where they are less likely to benefit from the natural cooling that vegetation provides. Cities can be up to 22 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than rural and suburban areas because a great portion of city surfaces are covered in pavement and concrete. Paved surfaces absorb and radiate heat, causing what is known as the urban heat island effect. This variation in the amount of paved surfaces can cause temperatures to vary within cities as well, where climbing rent prices and discriminatory housing policies have pushed low-income communities and communities of color farther away from parks and green spaces. A study of 108 U.S. cities found that 94 percent of formerly redlined areas experience higher temperatures than nonredlined areas.

At the center of these communities’ vulnerability is the lack of access to what few public health and climate change adaptation measures are available. The most common way to combat extreme heat is through air conditioning. The cost of installing or acquiring air conditioning, however, can present a huge financial burden. Even if a household has air conditioning, it does not mean they have the resources to use it. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 30 million, or 1 in 3, U.S. households faced challenges paying their energy bills. Energy insecurity is particularly prevalent among low-income, African American, and Hispanic or Latino households, as well as among tribal communities and individuals living in affordable multifamily buildings.

As people stay home during the pandemic and resultant economic recession, utility bills are rising, and household incomes are falling. More families are being forced to choose between cooling their homes and paying for necessities such as food, medicine, and child care.

The inadequacy of current cooling solutions

Nationwide energy-efficiency programs, which are designed to reduce energy use and lower utility bills, have historically come up short when accounting for the barriers faced by low-income communities and communities of color. The deteriorating conditions of a house or the structural issues of a building, for example, can undercut any potential gains from installing new cooling technologies. As Dr. Cecilia Martinez, executive director at the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, told the authors, “It’s great to get an air conditioning unit in your home, but if you have a hole in your roof, it won’t matter.”

Not all air conditioning units are the same, either. Most units run off energy generated by carbon-emitting fuel sources such as natural gas. Older units also produce hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—greenhouse gases that can be hundreds to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. Equipping families in need with inefficient air conditioning units therefore exacerbates the very conditions of climate change that are harming them in the first place.

The Clean Power Plan (CPP), introduced in 2015 under former President Barack Obama and later repealed in 2019 under President Donald Trump, was the first major federal policy to address climate change through the energy sector. Even in the CPP, however, there was only one program that specifically incentivized states to invest in energy efficiency in low-income communities—and state enlistment in the program was voluntary.

Individuals without air conditioning are usually advised to find shelter during a heat wave in government-sponsored cooling centers such as libraries. But in an effort to contain the spread of the virus, many cooling centers remain closed or inaccessible to the people who need them most. Without safe and reliable public transportation, relying on cooling centers is not a viable option—nor was it one to begin with. Individuals at risk of extreme heat should not have to leave their homes in search for safety. Instead, greater funding and resources need to be allocated to address the roots of their vulnerability and energy insecurity.

An opportunity for equity

In response to the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic, Congress has passed more legislation with larger price tags than it has in years, and it is in the process of drafting additional economic stimulus bills, including the $1.5 trillion Moving Forward Act unveiled in the U.S. House of Representatives last week. This legislative movement presents a unique opportunity to prioritize the investment in and revitalization of communities that have historically been at risk to extreme weather events such as heat waves.

“Over 30 million households in this country currently are energy insecure. As we transition to a greener economy and address extreme heat events, we must consider policies to address this inequity,” Peggy Shepard, executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, told the authors.

Any policy efforts to mitigate the impacts of extreme heat should build upon the burgeoning consensus within the environmental justice (EJ) and national environmental movements. For example, in a joint letter signed by more than 100 groups, EJ and national environmental group co-authors of the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform put forward key spending priorities to improve government programs and help ensure a fully inclusive pathway to economic recovery. The economic stimulus letter from Reps. Donald McEachin (D-VA) and Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) conveyed many of these same priorities and urged leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to enact legislation centered on EJ principles. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and 15 other senators sent a similar letter to Senate leaders.

The programs uplifted in these letters have the potential to significantly advance environmental, racial, and economic justice, and Congress is likely to take additional interest in how funding them would support national employment. A new analysis by Rhodium Group found that implementing 11 of the 16 proposed investment measures outlined in the letter from Reps. McEachin and Grijalva would result in the creation and retention of 300,000 jobs over the next five years.

To address the specific public health threats posed by more intense heat waves in economically disadvantaged areas, communities of color, and tribes, the federal government should incorporate the following actions outlined in these letters into its next stimulus package.

Create an energy justice and democracy program tasked with providing grants to community organizations

An energy justice and democracy program within the U.S. Department of Energy would support just and equitable access to energy-efficiency and renewable-energy technologies, community energy planning, and energy resilience during heat waves and other climate impacts. To help households access energy-efficiency improvements and affordable renewable energy, this program should provide grant funding to local organizations, which are best positioned to understand community challenges and needs. For example, EJ groups such as WE ACT in New York City are engaging the most heat-vulnerable residents of their membership in policy strategy development sessions with key government officials and fiscal, scientific, and public health experts. Through these sessions, they develop policy recommendations that both address the immediate challenges of those most vulnerable to extreme heat—including the installation of air conditioning into their homes—and target the systemic and structural barriers that allow these problems to persist. Grant funding from an energy justice and democracy program would enable WE ACT and similar organizations across the country to help those who are most vulnerable and vastly underserved by existing government programs.

Reinstate and fund $3.2 billion for the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program

The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program (EECBG) was created through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and provided $3.2 billion to local government, Indian tribes, states, and territories. This program should be reinstated to help reduce carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency. The Rhodium Group analysis found that an equivalent investment of $3.2 billion would also result in an average of 35,000 jobs over the next five years.

Fund $7 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides money to subsidize the energy needs of low-income families; the majority of this funding, however, goes to heating. In most states, what little funding there is for cooling assistance is limited to buying or repairing air conditioners—not to operating them. LIHEAP must be updated to support both the purchase and operation of energy-efficient, HFC-free air conditioners or heat pumps. The program must also be reformed to incorporate greater accountability measures to ensure funds are directly reaching low-income households—the intended beneficiaries of the program—rather than being diverted unnecessarily to utilities. With $7 billion in additional funding for LIHEAP, more families would able to spend their income on other essential needs and services, supporting an average of 90,000 jobs over the next five years, according to the Rhodium Group analysis.

Fund $7 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program

The Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) lowers energy costs for medium- and low-income households by supporting the adoption of energy-efficiency technologies. In its current form, however, WAP does not address and remove the barriers such as outstanding home repair that can make the cost of energy improvements too high to meet cost-benefit tests or, if significant enough, prevent low-income households from being eligible for energy-efficiency upgrades. Of the estimated 20 million to 30 million families who are eligible, WAP provides weatherization services to only about 40,000 homes every year. A $7 billion increase in WAP funds would extend the reach of the program and, according to the Rhodium Group analysis, support 85,000 jobs over five years. Additional funding for WAP must also be supplemented by a revamped approach to better meet the needs of low-income communities.

Conclusion

Dismantling systemic racism and environmental and public health injustices requires immediate, bold, and comprehensive action by all levels of government, the private sector, nonprofit organizations, philanthropy, and society at large. As part of this effort, Congress must ensure that vulnerable households have the resources needed to pay their energy bills, purchase energy-efficient air conditioners, and benefit from affordable clean and renewable energy. The urgency of this work cannot be overstated as the country grapples with the ongoing coronavirus and economic crises. During a long and blistering heat wave, having access to these resources can be the difference between life and death.

Elise Gout is a research associate for Energy and Environment 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 Peggy Shepard and Dana Johnson from WE ACT; Cecilia Martinez from the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy; as well as Tricia Woodcome, Connor Maxwell, and Trevor Higgins of CAP for their contributions to this column.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.