On a recent weekday afternoon in Phoenix, as the temperature soared to 108 degrees Fahrenheit, David Hondula, the city’s first manager of his new office of heat response and mitigation, headed outwards.
“We’re on our way right now to do some heat awareness this afternoon,” he said as we spoke on the phone. “We’re trying to catch the hottest part of the day, which is coming here momentarily.” The team was looking for homeless residents who may not be aware of local resources such as cooling centers and free rides to reach them.
It’s part of Phoenix’s response to a major challenge: Climate change is making America’s hottest city even hotter. Earlier this month, temperatures exceeded 110 degrees for five days in a row; overnight temperatures also remained dangerously high. Average temperatures in the city are now 2.5 degrees warmer than they were in the middle of the last century. It’s not just uncomfortable; it’s fatal. Last year in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, there were 338 deaths associated with extreme heat. One hundred and thirty of those who died were homeless. The problem will become more difficult to solve; by 2050, as climate change progresses, Phoenix could feel more like Baghdadwith some summer days hotter than 120 degrees.
The Heat Office, launched last fall to focus on both immediate responses to extreme heat and longer-term solutions to help cool the city, brings together work that was previously happening across all departments and had no single point of responsibility. “It’s very important to look at the whole city so that we can find solutions, whether it’s in the built environment or the way we manage open spaces,” says Mayor Kate Gallego, who was elected in 2019 after campaigning on a sustainability platform. She also sees an opportunity for the city to become a test bed for new heat support technologies. “I want Phoenix to be where innovative companies with a solution to climate change come from,” she says.
The city now has dozens of miles of “cool pavement”, streets treated with a reflective coating that, according to a study by Arizona State University, could lower surface temperatures by up to 12 degrees compared to the asphalt and make air above ground. cooler at night. Another program adds reflective coatings to roofs, which also helps reduce the need for air conditioning. Phoenix is also starting to plant more trees in neighborhoods that have the least shade now, using a tree equity tool from the nonprofit American Forests to target places that need it the most. . “We try to map the ‘cool corridors’ in the places where they will benefit people the most,” says Gallego. In April, municipal employees and volunteers planted 259 trees in the first of these corridors, on a route taken by students to walk to school. A $6 million allocation from the US bailout will be used to plant more trees.
A combination of these changes can have a measurable impact. Climate modeling studies “suggest that with widespread deployment of cooling strategies, such as cool roofs, and increased urban tree canopy, we may have a Phoenix of the future that is cooler than the one we have.” today, even though global warming continues,” says Hondula. “So the opportunity is very, very significant.” Some other factors can also help, he says, including switching to electric cars or bikes, since gas-powered cars generate heat. Everything is interconnected: if the streets are shaded and comfortable enough to walk or wait for public transit, people may also be less likely to drive short distances.
To cope with the scorching heat, the city has a network of cooling centers that open in May and stay open all summer; as the warm season lengthens, some proponents are pushing to keep them open until October. (In other cities, cooling centers usually only open during heat waves.) If someone walks into a public library, they can get a bottle of water and a cooling towel while they is sitting in the air conditioning. At the Human Services Campus, the site of a group of local organizations for the homeless, tents with evaporative cooling provide shade outdoors during the day.
Finding systemic solutions to homelessness is critical because someone living on the street or in a car is most at risk from extreme heat. But it’s also important to find ways to help low-income families who have air conditioning but can’t always afford to use it. “It becomes a choice between two really bad choices,” says Melissa Guardaro, a professor at Arizona State University who studies adaptation to extreme heat. “Do I pay for the air conditioning or do I pay the rent? Am I not paying for air conditioning and then I know my kids are going to have an asthma attack and I’m going to have these medical bills? I mean, it’s just a disaster.
In one program, the city worked with the local electric utility to install solar canopies over the parking lot of a public housing complex; the electricity generated by the solar panels allows residents to enjoy $15 off their electric bills, while the panels also provide shade. “When we developed our climate action plan, our residents said they thought about climate change every day,” says Gallego. “They also really pushed us to find solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that help people save on their bills.” The city is also helping residents make their homes more efficient, which can significantly reduce the amount of energy needed for air conditioning. Low-income residents can also get free trees to help shade their homes.
As climate change makes other cities hotter — and with extreme heat already responsible for more deaths each year than any other type of weather-related disaster in the United States — some cities are looking to Phoenix for guidance . When an unprecedented heat wave hit the Pacific Northwest in 2021, Gallego received calls from several communities asking how to set up cooling centers. Phoenix can also offer advice on how to build infrastructure that can survive extreme heat.
More cities are also likely to create heat-focused departments, but even when that’s not possible, Hondula says it’s helpful to clarify where primary responsibility lies. Already, in the first few months of the new Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, “my colleagues have brought us insights that they simply never felt were within their purview. to work,” he said. In the past, it was unclear where to go. “Is this the responsibility of public health, first and foremost? Is this really the responsibility of emergency management? Is this a human services issue? ” he says. “Nationally, we just haven’t done a very good job of clarifying that responsibility. And with that ambiguity, I think it’s fair to say that we had a lot of missed chances.
Eliminating deaths from extreme heat is possible, says Guardaro. “It’s something that can be solved,” she says. “But we all have to start talking about it.”