The Heat of the Moment

Amid record-breaking heat waves around the world, talk about climate emergencies has sprung up in the United States, with the presidential administration considering more aggressive steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

For many of us, however, calling climate change an “emergency” only confirms what we have known for a long time — that climate disruption due to human activity is causing dire problems for people everywhere. 

Six years ago, the Academy issued its own statement on climate, firmly supporting the scientific consensus that the warming planet presents an imminent danger. In the time since, this reality has only become more apparent. 

City Hall is a popular destination during the height of summer. Mike Servedio/ANS

Reflecting this, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called the latest reports on climate “a code red for humanity,” adding that“the alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable,” with billions of people at immediate risk. 

As we work to cope with this emergency, it is important to realize that not everyone’s level of risk is the same. While climate change will ultimately impact all human and nonhuman life-forms, it is — like many environmental problems — most harmful to the poor and communities of color. 

This is as true in Philadelphia as it is around the globe. For our city, the impacts of climate change — especially the results of excessive heat — disproportionately affect minority and low-income communities. 

This week, our city has joined much of the world in experiencing sustained high temperatures and most of us would assume that we are all suffering more-or-less equally. But while the average temperature of the city may be 90 degrees Fahrenheit, in some neighborhoods it will run considerably higher, and in some cases, a double-digit difference. 

Why is this? Urban heat is not only the result of general weather conditions but also depends on development patterns, such as the amount of pavement relative to green space, the presence of industry and the volume of traffic. Many of these factors are connected to historic patterns of segregation and underinvestment.  

Also, vulnerability to excess heat is driven by exposure to high temperatures, but also by two other factors — sensitivity and resources. Put simply, if a larger percentage of a community is older, chronically ill or otherwise stressed, they are more vulnerable to heat mortality. Conversely, people who have air conditioning and access to better health care are less vulnerable. Obviously, both sensitivity and resources are closely linked to income. 

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health has worked extensively to address the heat equity issue. As part of this, the city also maintains an interactive map that shows which neighborhoods have the highest vulnerability.  

Philadelphia Heat Vulnerability Index, with red representing hottest temperatures

The Academy is also working to help better understand urban heat issues. With a crew of community scientists, we are leading a one-day, citywide Urban Heat and Air Quality Mapping Campaign on July 30, aiming to help give Philly residents a stronger voice in the planning and implementation of climate change-preparedness strategies.  

Community scientists will map heat and air quality across the city by driving one-hour routes in the morning, afternoon and evening with heat and air quality sensors mounted to their cars. The sensors will produce detailed heat and air pollution maps that will be shared publicly to catalyze equitable solutions to these issues. Local partners include the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation in support of the Philly Tree Plan, as well as Clean Air Council, Drexel University and Temple University. 

Anyone interested in participating in the Academy’s Heat and Air Quality Mapping Campaign can sign up to join.

Recently, there have been reports that voters have been “losing interest” in climate change, suggesting that the environment seems too remote and that more immediate topics like gas prices will decide elections. 

Unfortunately, scientific reality does not respond to polls. Climate change, as the President has acknowledged, is a true emergency. And, as we watch communities in Philly and around the world coping with deadly heat waves — not to mention floods, wildfires and droughts — we can see that climate change is, in fact, very, very immediate. 

Written by Roland Wall, director of the Academy’s Patrick Center for Environmental Research 

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