Danger Season’s Extreme Heat Is Melting Records: Here Are 3 Things Congress Should Do Now

August 23, 2023 | 12:40 pm
Against a backdrop of an orange sky, a group of construction workers in silhouette are standing near a fencewal_172619/Pixabay
Shana Udvardy
Senior Climate Resilience Policy Analyst

This summer is melting extreme heat records nationwide and globally. The fourth of July hit the news for the hottest day on record, as did the day after and the following day.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies, July 2023 stands as the hottest month on record globally since 1880 when record-keeping began. The top-five hottest Julys have all occurred in the past five years. Heat waves are becoming more frequent, intense, longer and the length of the season is increasing.

From May to October, communities across the Northern Hemisphere are experiencing more frequent and intense climate change-related extreme weather events, such as heat, wildfires, and hurricanes. UCS regards these months as Danger Season to help express the risks these climate change impacts pose to communities. This year, Danger Season is earning its name particularly when it comes to extreme heat. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Seasonal Outlook for September through November, the majority of the country is expected to see above-normal temperatures during this time.

From https://dangerseason.ucsusa.org; accessed 8.23.23

Today, there are 70 million people in 1,120 counties under heat alert (that’s one-third of all counties), and nearly everyone in the US and territories (96% of people) has experienced a heat alert since Danger Season started in May 1. A majority of all heat alerts since May 1 (83%) have a clear climate signal, meaning that these extreme heat conditions would not have happened without human-caused climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels.

The Biden administration recently issued the first-ever heat hazard alert to reaffirm what employers can and should under federal law to protect workers and to announce federal investments in weather forecasts, among other resilience efforts. The administration has also advanced rulemaking to develop workplace heat standards and has ramped up workplace inspections and enforcement. However, the White House can only do so much and additional action is needed by Congress.

The good news is, Congress has introduced bills that would increase resources and policies to help communities prepare and respond to heatwaves. The bad news is: time is ticking as dangerous heat continues to plague a large part of the US, many outdoor workers who pick our fruit or carry our mail continue to die, extreme heat records are on the rise and bipartisan support on these heat protection bills is sorely lacking.  

Dangerous heat is on the rise and time is ticking: Congress should enact these three bills ASAP.

These bills would:

1. Establish heat protection standards to safeguard workers from heat-related injuries and illnesses.

The Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury, and Fatality Prevention Act (S.2501 / H.R. 4897) would require new safety and health standards to protect workers from heat-related injuries and illnesses. The bill would require employers to implement commonsense and lifesaving measures such as providing adequate hydration, shade, rest breaks, and acclimatization periods. Currently, California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, have enacted enforceable standards to safeguard outdoor workers from dangerous heat (unfortunately some states have eliminated protections altogether). Extreme heat can be deadly, and it is particularly the case when it comes to outdoor workers like construction workers, farmworkers among many others. Because farmworkers primarily work outdoors, they are 35 times more likely of dying from heat exposure due to the strenuous and poor work conditions.

We saw significant support for this bill during the last Congress, but it was not bipartisan. The House bill gained 116 Democratic cosponsors and the Senate bill had 16 Democrats and one Independent in support. This Congress we must garner bipartisan support as we’re reading what seems like weekly reports of outdoor workers dying working under dangerous heat conditions. As Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren says, “We all get hot. We all need water. We all need breaks.” 

Enforceable federal standards that mandate employers to implement common sense heat preventions for outdoor workers are long overdue. Congress has a moral obligation to pass the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury, and Fatality Prevention Act.

2. Increase federal assistance to communities suffering from heatwaves.

The Extreme Heat Emergency Act (H.R.3965) would add extreme heat to the definition of a major disaster and thereby enable the federal disaster declaration process to move forward. While there are federal assistance programs, for example under FEMA among other agencies, that could be used for extreme heat, none were designed specifically to target resources for human health heat impacts. If passed into law, the Extreme Heat Emergency Act would enable governors and leaders of federally recognized tribes to request a disaster declaration when an incident causes damages of such “severity and magnitude” that state, local, tribal, or territorial governments cannot respond adequately without the help of federal assistance.

Take for example Austin, Texas where the National Weather Service (NWS) of Austin and San Antonio reported a 100-degree day streak for a whopping 44 days. This unrelenting heat is far longer than the 100-degree day streak back in 2011 that lasted 27 days. With the passage of this bill, areas under prolonged heatwaves could get additional resources to invest in heat adaptation measures like cooling centers, early warning systems and cooling assistance to low- and fixed-income households, the elderly and those with medical conditions.

NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center forecast suggests this extreme heat will continue and Congress needs to act to make sure resources are available to help affected communities and the people that live there.

3. Invest in science to increase community resilience during heatwaves.

The objective of the Preventing HEAT Illness and Deaths Act (S.2645 /H.R.4953) is to reduce the health risks of heat by:

  • permanently establishing the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS) under NOAA;
  • creating a federal interagency committee to improve preparedness, planning and response to extreme heat;
  • requiring a National Academies of Science study on federal action on heat-health issues and response; and
  • authorizing a $100 million financial assistance program to help target funding to those communities hit first and worst by extreme heat and who have a limited ability to prepare for extreme heat.

On average, 702 people die from extreme heat annually; however we know that the number of heat-related deaths is underestimated. A good estimator of heat health impacts however is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Heat Health Tracker which shows daily rates of emergency room visits for heat-related illnesses per 100,000 visits. Understanding how many people are getting emergency treatment for heat can be a helpful indicator because death rates rise after heat waves due to heat stroke and related conditions, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and cerebrovascular disease. The recently released EMS Heat Tracker provides the heat-related EMS (Emergency Medical Services) for example showing that over the last two weeks, six states (FL, GA, AL, AR, NM, OR) have had much higher than average EMS heat-related activations.

By passing the Preventing Heat Illness and Deaths Act of 2023, Congress would advance these types of extremely valuable federal interagency coordination and science on heat health and safety.

We need bipartisan Congressional action to protect communities from extreme heat

The unfortunate reality is that extreme heat is here to stay and will get much worse. It is almost certain (98% likelihood) that we’ll see at least one of the next five years be the hottest on record. This means:

  • the intensity and frequency of extreme heat will continue;
  • heat in cities will be amplified given that urban areas tend to hold heat longer; and
  • the already deadly heatwaves are likely to get even deadlier as human-induced climate change pushes “temperatures to unprecedented highs with alarming frequency.”

These three bills should be bipartisan—and should be just the beginning of congressional actions to help communities withstand and prepare for extreme heat. We cannot rely solely on adapting our way out of extreme heat. To limit the extent and number of dangerously hot days and truly have an impact, we must boldly and rapidly reduce heat trapping emissions.

Time is of the essence. Unless Congress acts, the most vulnerable people will needlessly die. We need bipartisan action to get these  bills over the finish line to rapidly advance preparedness efforts and reduce heat trapping emissions to limit the impacts of deadly, extreme heat.