Young group of teenagers activists demonstrating against global warming. (via LeoPatrizi on iStock)

In the first week of July, nearly 200 people in the Pacific Northwest died after a heat wave took hold of the region, setting record temperatures of up to 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Heatwaves and extreme heat are unusual in the Pacific Northwest, and due to climate change, the region now faces a steep learning curve to manage and adapt. This means confronting both immediate needs during heat crises and how institutional neglect has left marginalized communities at even greater risk in the increasing heat.

“Every issue disproportionately impacts [marginalized communities],” says David Heppard, the executive director of Freedom Project Washington. Freedom Project offers programming focused on building empathy and relationships, teaches nonviolent communication and mindfulness inside carceral institutions, and provides direct support and services to those in need regardless of circumstances. Heppard says their work depends on being able to respond quickly in addressing the needs of people in underserved areas during crises because those populations aren’t the state’s first priorities.  

“We understand that money doesn’t flow to the most marginalized in our community,” he said.

The consequences of those structural inequities can be deadly, especially in the historically temperate Pacific Northwest. According to the Centers for Disease Control, extreme heat and heat waves are the deadliest weather-related hazard of any natural disaster, with 65,000 emergency room visits annually for heat-related illness including an average of 1,130 recorded deaths. Extreme heat prevents the body’s natural cooling centers from functioning and, in the most severe cases, someone suffering hyperthermia (when body temperature increases far above what’s healthy) can die. Heat waves can also change the health of ecosystems over time, leading to permanent alterations in rivers, landscapes, and water tables, and affecting food and water supplies. For example, the July heatwave was responsible for the death of over 1 billion marine animals, impacting aquatic ecosystem health and businesses. 

As Pacific Northwest officials struggle to pivot infrastructures and public services to meet the new normal, and organizers scramble to provide marginalized and under-resourced communities with resources to manage and survive the shifting climate, areas of the country where extreme heat is part of the normal landscape could provide useful models to follow. While their climates differ considerably, researchers and organizers in areas like the Southwest also wrestle with the disparate effects of extreme heat on under-resourced communities. Their efforts point to what many Pacific Northwest organizers already know—that communities of color and poor neighborhoods pay the cost for systems that primarily benefit white middle class people and neighborhoods, and any viable solutions must be directed by the people who are most acutely impacted by the heat.

New climate, old problems

In the wake of the extreme heat wave, some elected officials used the opportunity to draw attention to its catalyst: climate change.Washington Democratic Governor Jay Inslee wrote in an op-ed for the Seattle Times that “[t]emperature is just one part of the climate crisis’ multifaceted threat … if we don’t step up to the plate now, Washington will be unrecognizable in the decades to come.”

Statements like Inslee’s may sound good, Heppard notes, but governmental structures have very little incentive to change themselves because “this system was created in such a way to have this impact.” Even while elected officials acknowledge the influence of climate change, there are multiple long-standing gaps in resources, emergency responses, and other institutional failures that made the heat wave more deadly for some than for others, organizers say. The heat wave wasn’t just devastating because of its duration and extreme temperatures—the region’s unpreparedness for the heat also played a critical role. 

A majority of residences in Seattle don’t have air conditioning units; in fact it’s the least air conditioned metro area in the U.S. Those with the financial means were able to withstand the heat more easily, either by purchasing air conditioning units or getting out of town. They are also often climate change’s biggest funders while consistently escaping its impacts. Those who pay the price of extreme weather, like Black and brown, poor, undocumented, and unhoused populations, often can’t afford solutions that make climate events tolerable. Correcting structural inequalities, such as poverty, income inequality, and the nature gap—a term researchers use to describe varying access to green spaces—are critical to mitigating the effects of climate change on vulnerable populations.

Across multiple studies, income is a central factor affecting risk of illness and death due to extreme heat and heat exposure. This puts poor, under-resourced, and people of color at further risk because intervention efforts often require money. Air conditioning and electricity often become more costly during a heat wave. 31% of U.S. households cannot afford their energy bills, with 20% of these households forced to make the decision of not purchasing food or other basic needs in order to pay their energy bills, per the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

Federal housing discrimination practices, such as redlining, are also directly linked to the ways that Black and brown folks experience heat waves and extreme heat. In the 1930s, the Home Owners Loan Corporation color-coded neighborhood maps to indicate who banks should lend money to based on where a buyer wanted to purchase a home. Legally codified practices such as “restricted covenants” allowed banks and lenders to deny Black families funds to purchase homes in green-colored areas on the map, forcing them to purchase homes in red-colored areas. As a result, Seattle residents can have vastly different heat experiences during the summer months. In 2020, Abby Keller, a graduate research assistant at the University of Washington, noted that “[i]n Seattle, areas labeled as ‘best’ are 1.45°C cooler than the city’s average temperature, while areas labeled ‘definitely declining,’ like the Rainier Valley neighborhood, are 0.90°C warmer than average.”

Those temperature variations are further reflected by lack of green spaces in divested neighborhoods. Green spaces are critical to mitigating heat and without them, neighborhoods become so-called “heat islands,” which literally trap and radiate heat out at hotter temperatures, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Not coincidentally, 74% of nonwhite people living in the U.S. reside in neighborhoods that are nature-deprived. Under these circumstances, marginalized communities are even more reliant on local government and organizations for support and survival in extreme heat conditions.

Relying on community support and resources

Amid multiple compounding crises of climate change and community disinvestment, Heppard and his colleagues say that they’re now working double time to address both long-term underlying issues and immediate impacts of structural problems. Freedom Project can help Washington community members address trauma and respond to disasters with immediate relief, but elected officials also need to push for systemic change to create more sustainable solutions, rather than temporary band-aids.

“You could really talk about the heat wave as kind of a euphemism for how oppression in general has hit,” Heppard says. “[The] country loves dealing with the symptoms of issues; they never want to deal with the root causes because they cause the root causes.”

Grassroots organizations are particularly adept at meeting community needs because there’s a reciprocal relationship at work, rather than a top down, responsive approach. They’re present in their communities year-round, and activists often have similar lived experiences as those they’re serving. The solutions they implement are created by collaborating with the people they serve. Those bonds of trust are critical in shaping how successful organizations are with initiatives and outreach.

“If you need something, if you’re going through something, you’re going to go to people that you trust that you actually care about,” says Lauren Ephriam, prison program director for Freedom Project Washington. “And so it’s the same thing here. So it’s like, if it’s water, fans, whatever, you know, people will come to us because we have that foundation.” 

Communications director Mike Buchman of Solid Ground, an organization that works to address causes and impacts of poverty in the Seattle and King County region, said that the heat wave demonstrated the need for prepared and proactive, not just reactive, responses to extreme weather events. 

“We did not have a precursor conversation with residents as this was a historic heat event in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “I would say that we weren’t entirely prepared and had to be reactive.” 

Solid Ground worked with the King County public health department to offer cooling resources to residents and establish cooling stations. Solid Ground works with a $40 million annual budget, with most of its funds coming from government-funded contracts, Buchman says. This means that while the organization isn’t as embedded in the community as grassroots organizers, it carries a heavy dual responsibility of working as an intermediary between local and municipal governments and residents who rely on their support, Buchman says. Overseeing the dispersal of funds to hundreds of grassroots organizations is the role “you kind of imagine that government should be playing.”

Buchman added that Solid Ground is aware of the “structural barriers and challenges” that governments can present to making sure that Seattle residents receive the support they need, and that “government planners aren’t necessarily in relationship with communities,” which he says can lead to an adversarial relationship between the two. 

How to beat the heat

Navigating the contentious relationships between communities and government agencies to create workable solutions to the heat is something that organizers in high temperature regions are familiar with. Researchers at Arizona State University (ASU), located in Phoenix—a city so hot that it may become “unlivable” in coming decades—stress that solutions to extreme heat must come from the people experiencing its impacts. However, they also warn that when local governments don’t value those experiences, it generates mistrust and cynicism within the communities they’re supposed to serve. David Hondula, an associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning who worked with the research team studying urban heat, said that residents were initially skeptical that anything could or would be done to address their needs. 

“This resident said, I know it’s hot, I know people are going to die, [you] just hope it’s not you,” Hondula says. 

Community organizations with existing relationships to those most impacted by the Phoenix heat helped enable conversations with residents that illuminated several barriers. For instance, even when the local government had identified potential solutions, such as planting trees for shade, there wasn’t a lot of guidance about who paid for and oversaw implementing those solutions. About 40% of all households in Phoenix are renters who may not have the money or the ability to make changes to their homes, such as planting trees, and there were no incentives for landlords to make any such improvements to their properties. That lack of clarity about chain of command and areas of responsibility created considerable hurdles in putting any potential solutions into place.

“It’s not even clear who’s in charge of this problem in the first place,” Hondula says, referring to extreme heat. “I mean, the sustainability manager sometimes, and Parks and Recreation sometimes, it may be the emergency manager sometimes. It’s not a hazard that we have a very clear governance structure for.” 

However, Hondula is encouraged that the city’s most recent budget includes funding for a dedicated Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, which will comprise of dedicated city staff to listen to resident experiences and include those testimonials in policy recommendations. Such an office “has never existed in almost any city around the country,” Hondula says. “Now, Phoenix will have one.”  

A crucial element to the research team’s results was the targeted outreach that made residents aware they actually had options and a say in how to deal with the heat. Hondula says that some research participants in Phoenix, who regularly deal with high temperatures, didn’t even know that heat mitigation strategies could be implemented. More importantly, they didn’t believe that city officials would want to listen to their concerns and proposed solutions. However, working with grassroots organizations to build trust with residents helped encourage their participation, while the institutional legitimacy of ASU brought city officials into the room. In the end, a cross-organizational approach led to the set of local specific, holistic heat solutions like cooling corridors or streets lined with trees that provide shade.

A hyper-local research approach that centers the needs and knowledge of those experiencing extreme heat can guide Pacific Northwest political and community leaders grappling with how to adjust to the changing climate. Working with organizations like Freedom Project and Solid Ground that have pre-existing relationships with historically underserved communities can build trust between residents and government agencies and guide more effective initiatives. By using a community-centered approach that values and respects the perspectives of people at the frontlines of extreme weather effects, local and state officials have an opportunity to create new infrastructure and heat mitigation strategies that will benefit everyone in the region. Doing so now is imperative—Hondula warned that as heat waves last longer and average summer temperatures climb, there isn’t time for local governments to wait.

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.