In early April, when social distancing took hold across many places in the United States–with school and workplace closings and public life coming to a halt–it seemed like an inopportune time to talk about climate change.
We are knee-deep in a global health crisis of a kind not seen for a hundred years, and #FlatteningTheCurve is crucial in order to prevent even more widespread contagion, the overwhelming of health services, and even larger-scale loss of life than what COVID-19 has already caused. This is where our collective attention, resources, and efforts should be focused.
The pandemic is a global crisis long in the making. Public health and pandemic disease warriors have been warning for years that a dangerous pandemic was imminent. They also warned us what we needed to do mount an effective response and protect lives: a focus on science-based preparedness and prevention, strong public health institutions and international collaboration, widespread access to health care, and social safety nets to absorb the impacts of protracted economic contractions like the one in which we are currently living. And yet, in the US and in many countries across the world, this is exactly where we are now.
On top of this, seasonal extreme weather is upon us. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so strange anymore to be talking about climate change. Here, I take a look at the colliding dangers of extreme weather–with a focus on extreme heat–and COVID-19, and lay out a few ways in which Congress can bring relief to the millions in the path of both threats.
The double whammy of climate and COVID-19 on vulnerable people
If the litany of pandemic scientists’ warnings sounds familiar, it’s because climate scientists have been issuing, for decades, similar warnings about the need to reduce carbon emissions to curb climate change and avoid catastrophic consequences for human life and the infrastructure that supports it. And while climate change and COVID-19 may seem unrelated on the surface, we live in an interconnected world where carbon emissions and viral agents like the novel coronavirus are globalized, operating and disrupting our lives at different spatial and temporal scales. Think, for example, of the novel coronavirus’ 1-14 day incubation period in our bodies, a climate change-driven heat wave through our city, or seasonal flooding through our region.
Our new pandemic reality has been made more complicated and dangerous by climate change and the added pressure it can exert on millions of people–e.g., to seek cooling centers, endure a long power outage, flee the path of hurricanes, the loss of life or property, habitats, and ancestral ways of life—and the combination looks frightening.
A few weeks ago, my colleague Dr. Kristy Dahl and I analyzed the confluence of projected COVID-19 infections and spring flood predictions by the end of May 2020. We found that many areas in the US South and Midwest, including rural agricultural communities like Cedar Rapids, IA, and large metropolitan areas like Atlanta, GA and St Louis, MO, could be dealing with evacuating people to shelters while simultaneously trying to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus by maintaining social distancing guidelines.
Fortunately, most of those flood predictions have not come true. But NOAA’s Spring flood outlook, updated since we did that analysis, is warning that spring rain and wet soil conditions could still drive flooding in the late season.
Protecting against both COVID-19 and extreme weather
As temperatures across the US rise with the approach of summer, another climate and COVID-19 quandary is in sight: how to protect people–especially the most vulnerable–from heat waves, while also protecting them from COVID-19?
For example, elderly people, who are at higher risk of death from COVID-19, are also at high risk of becoming sick or dying from extreme heat, as was the case in the 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed 700-plus (many of them people of advanced age who lived on their own). In some cities, where heat tends to be more extreme because of the urban heat island effect, many elderly people live on their own, may not have an air conditioner unit at home, or may be unable to afford its use. Many among those will be forced to observe social distancing by sheltering in place in dangerously hot homes. But poverty and social isolation on their own will unfortunately also take their toll on the most vulnerable if we don’t take steps to protect them.
COVID-19 is already ravaging African American and Native American communities, and Latinos are also disproportionately exposed to the novel coronavirus. Many of the usual steps taken to protect people from extreme heat in many of these communities–in urban and rural areas alike—are incompatible with the social distancing measures taken to prevent virus contagion. And if climate change continues unchecked, the number of “killer heat” days could quadruple in many areas of the US, putting more people in harm’s way.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, it may have been possible for elderly people and other vulnerable persons to go to nearby cooling centers, malls, movie theaters, parks, lakes, or beaches, but in many states these are closed to limit spread of COVID-19 infections.
In mid-April, the heat index in parts of Florida exceeded 100°F, prompting calls for Governor DeSantis to enact a statewide moratorium on utility shutoffs for lapses in bill payment. Keeping the air conditioner (AC) on is a critical way for people to stay healthy and alive indoors during extreme heat days while observing social distancing and stay-at- home orders.
This came into focus last week across the Southern US as a deadly heat wave blanketed the region. As my colleague Dr Rachel Licker pointed out, the combination of income loss, COVID-19, extreme heat, and the lack of utility shutoff moratoria are bad, bad news for millions across the South. In this time when multiple environmental hazards are hitting us, the way to keep people safe from a heat wave is to keep the AC running at home so they don’t have to go outside to cool and risk spread of COVID-19.
Under normal times, it’s difficult for a significant chunk of the U.S. population to keep the AC, refrigerator, and other essential home appliances running, but loss of jobs and income will make it even harder for an even larger segment of the population.
Six ways Congress can keep low-income people at home and cool during the pandemic
- Ensure Parity in energy bill assistance benefits to residents of public housing – In at least 26 states, residents of public housing with energy costs included in rent are not eligible for energy bill payment assistance under the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Such an arrangement means that tenants don’t have to pay out of pocket for electric bills, which can serve to protect from heat those residents of public housing that includes AC units. But it does not work for public housing that does not include AC units because LIHEAP does not cover the purchase of AC units. In addition, residents of public housing in many states receive less LIHEAP benefits regardless of how energy costs are paid. Residents of public housing, like other low-income populations, already face significant challenges to meeting material needs, and should not be penalized by LIHEAP. Congress must ensure parity in LIHEAP benefits for all low-income populations.
- Eliminate LIHEAP medical documentation requirement– One requirement for LIHEAP benefits eligibility is that an applicant with a health or medical risk that could worsen with a utility disconnection provides medical documentation of such risk. In this country, many low-income persons lack health insurance due to cost barriers. In addition, in-person medical appointments are currently largely not possible due to the need to observe social distancing during the pandemic, and virtual medical appointments require broadband internet connections at home and computer equipment that may be out of reach for many low-income populations. Beyond pre-existing medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes that could be exacerbated by extreme heat, many persons without diagnosed medical conditions are still at risk of heat-related illness or death. While some LIHEAP implementation guidelines have been explicitly relaxed during the COVID-19 emergency, jurisdictions do not appear to have authority to relax medical documentation eligibility requirements.
- Enact utility shutoff moratoria in all states and territories for the duration of the pandemic– While Florida is the only state with no protections against utility shutoffs due to health or medical reasons, only nine states have enacted bans for electricity shutoffs based on temperature thresholds. Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands have not formally enacted moratoria, but their respective power companies have committed publicly to not disconnect power for non-payment during the COVID-19 emergency. But as my colleague Joe Daniel wrote, voluntary actions of power companies do not provide comprehensive protection and are not uniform across the U.S. Therefore, what is needed is a national mandatory moratorium on utility disconnections that includes territories and tribal nations as well. If power bills stack up and become due at some point after the crisis, many low-income people will see their energy burden increase, so a national utility disconnection moratorium needs to come with a plan for recouping costs that does not impose an inequitable burden.
- Enact parity in evictions moratoria for the duration of the pandemic– The CARES Act temporarily banned evictions for not paying rent, but similar to the utility shutoff ban, the evictions moratorium “has gaps, limits, and pitfalls” and can also be problematic for landlords. There is no straightforward way for renters to know if their landlords are banned by law from evicting renters–not unless the landlord shares with renters information on for example, if the landlord has a federally-backed mortgage, or participation in housing programs for victims of domestic violence. And landlords will typically have little incentive to share such information with their tenants. Regardless, the CARES Act moratorium covers just 28 percent of rental units in the US. Just like with the utility shutoff ban, Congress must enact a national moratorium on evictions that includes the territories and tribal nations as well.
- Increase income ceiling for LIHEAP eligibility– Income eligibility for LIHEAP is somewhere between 100 and 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), and states have discretion in choosing the specific cutoff within that range. To use an example, the FPL for a family of four (like mine) is $26,200, obviously a very modest income, and too low for many households to deal with the increasing cost of living in US cities. Congress must raise the income limits for LIHEAP eligibility, which would go a long way to reduce energy insecurity among millions in the US.
- Increase funding for the Weatherization Assistance Program – Poor-quality homes increase cooling (and heating) costs, which can increase the energy burden of low-income households. The Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) funds home improvements such as insulation, repairs to heating or cooling systems, and home appliance upgrades to more energy-efficient models. This program supports thousands of jobs, and can help low-income households lower their energy bills and thus their energy burden. Increased funding for the program will create more jobs and lower energy burdens.
The changes suggested above are stopgap measures to help working families stay safe during the pandemic. As the economic and human health costs of the pandemic continue to climb, we need to think about how to provide long-term funding for these measures.
LIHEAP, for example, has been severely underfunded relative to the needs for years now, even before the COVID crisis. That is in part why the CARES Act assigned the large sum of $900 million to LIHEAP alone. Thus increasing the income ceiling for LIHEAP eligibility would have to be accompanied by an increase in overall funding to make any difference because at the current income ceiling, the program is already oversubscribed.
In addition, LIHEAP is a federally-funded block grant program that is administered by states, territories, and tribal nations. There is lack of parity in LIHEAP eligibility requirements and benefits because jurisdictions are allowed to have different rules in choosing how to implement the program. In addition, landlords cannot be expected to shoulder the economic hit from not receiving rental payments. Property owners need to pay mortgages, insurance, maintenance, etc., so a moratorium on rental payments must also come with a federal government plan to cover those expenses.
A return to normalcy should address existing inequities magnified by climate change and COVID-19
Summer heat drives us together, but social distancing is needed to beat COVID-19.
Sunny days and higher temperatures drive people to gather in parks, pools, beaches, lakes, or attend music festivals or concerts. But for people who cannot shelter from heat at home, gathering in public places is not just a way to enjoy the summer. Sheltering in a cooling center or splashing around in water from a fire hydrant are key adaptation behaviors that can keep people safe from heat.
Across the country, the desire to resume normalcy is encouraging many state plans to lift social distancing guidelines and open public spaces. But as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious-disease expert in the US has said, reopening the economy and lifting social distancing guidelines prematurely will very likely trigger a spike in cases and not lead to the economic recovery that many are hoping for. We need to manage the compound hazards of heat and COVID-19 to get through the summer without large increases in infections.
We also should resist the urge to romanticize the “normalcy” we wish to return to. “Normal” before the novel coronavirus means deep inequities in access to good jobs, housing, health care, and environmental protections that are magnifying impacts among many communities during the pandemic. It also means the seasonal and year-round impacts of a warming world–devastating hurricanes, floods, wildfires, heat waves, and droughts.
While we all want to go back to economic and leisure activities of everyday life, we must aspire to a post-pandemic world in which all, not just the wealthy or well-connected can avoid the worst consequences of climate change and the terrible COVID-19 disease. Besides the measures above that Congress can take to protect heat-vulnerable populations during the pandemic, Congress should also include long-term investments in economic and workforce development among low-income communities in the next stimulus package (see Dr. Adrienne Hollis’ post on this).
Providing immediate relief to the most climate-vulnerable in society is a first step in that direction.