Heat waves kill more people than hurricanes. Yet, we seem to be far less prepared to deal with extreme heat than we are with other kinds of severe weather events. Instead of taking heat seriously, we often dismiss heat waves as ho-hum “typical” summer weather. Unfortunately, as the climate crisis worsens, nothing is less typical or ho-hum than the kinds of summers we’re experiencing now – and heat-related death tolls tell the tale. As of July 6, almost 800 people have succumbed to extreme heat. And those numbers will probably increase.
Extreme heat is particularly deadly for the elderly, people with weakened immune systems, those who work outdoors, and people at the lower end of the economic spectrum who may live in crowded apartments without air conditioning. Yes, like other aspects of climate change, heat waves spotlight the social injustice imposed on individuals and families who can’t escape climate change impacts.
Children are vulnerable to extreme heat, too. While dehydration is most common, says the American Academy of Pediatrics, heat extremes can cause kids to suffer heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat strokes. Children can become faint or extremely tired, or develop headaches or a fever. If your child gets nauseous, starts vomiting or hyperventilating, or complains of skin numbness or tingling, they could be in real danger due to high heat.
The obvious solution to surviving a heat wave is to go into a cool, air conditioned building. But the ultimate irony is that air conditioning accelerates climate change! Our millions of air conditioners “produce enough heat to measurably boost urban temperatures,” reports Technology Review, “and they leak out highly potent greenhouse gases, too.” Hydrofluorocarbsons (HVCs), the chemicals inside ACs that cool the air, are super greenhouse gases, up to 3,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. “By cooling ourselves off, we risk cooking ourselves to death,” says Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone.
Still, because heat is such a killer, we do need strategies to keep cool when temperatures get extreme. If you don’t have access to AC, or even if you do but want to minimize using it to limit your carbon footprint, these tips might help you stay cool:
- Use a fan. Fans use significantly LESS energy than air conditioners. They’re also significantly cheaper to buy than either a window air conditioning unit or a whole-house. In my home, I keep the AC to a minimum by using two portable table fans and a standing fan. The table fans I can easily move from my office to the kitchen or bedroom. The standing fan can keep the entire living room cool.
- Stay hydrated. High heat causes us to sweat, and the more we sweat, the harder it is on our bodies. Drink frequently on a hot day and choose water over sugary soda or alcohol.
- Avoid the hot midday sun. Wear a hat and carry an umbrella to keep the hot sun off your head. If you’re out and about, spend the hottest parts of the day in the shade if possible.
- Go to a cool place to sleep, if needed. Many communities open cooling centers to provide heat wave relief, and some may set up sleeping centers as well. Libraries and shopping malls also provide cool respite during the day.
- Know the signs of heat stroke. This handy chart from the Centers for Disease Control tells you what to look out for and what to do when you see symptoms.
- NEVER leave kids unattended in a vehicle. Extreme heat can overtake a child in minutes. (By the way, this goes for pets, too.)
- Dress kids in minimal, single layers that allow plenty of room for them to sweat.
- Wipe down kids faces, arms and legs with a damp cloth, then let the water evaporate; it will cool the skin as it does. Put out a “splash” pool or bucket so kids can spray their faces and bodies with cool water whenever they need to.
- If your kids are going to camp, talk with counselors. Make sure they have a protocol in place to minimize kids’ heat exposure. My kids took little battery-operated fans they could attach to their bunk beds or tent cots or hold in front of their faces. Some of the fans were attached to reusable bottles of water, so they could spray water through the fan for a cooling mist.
- Make sure your kids carry water bottles with them, probably more than one. If it’s too hot to wear a backpack, get them a fanny pack that can hold a couple of bottles.
Note: the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) helps eligible low-income households cover some of their heating and cooling costs, provides energy crisis assistance, and pays for limited weatherization and energy-related home repairs. It also includes special programs so landlords can weatherize buildings and reduce the amount of energy needed for heating and cooling.