Responding to Extreme Global Heat

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment, Council on Foreign Relations

Climate News and Storytelling Reporter, The Arizona Republic


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations


Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Alice C. Hill, David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at CFR, will discuss the societal and environmental implications of extreme global heat and how the United States and other countries are responding. Joan Meiners, climate news and storytelling reporter at the Arizona Republic, will discuss reporting on climate issues and how heat waves affect local communities. The host for the webinar is Carla Anne Robbins, senior fellow at CFR and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times. A question-and-answer session will follow their conversation.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Local Journalists Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. We’re delighted to have over seventy participants from thirty-seven states and U.S. territories with us for today’s conversation, which is on the record.

CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, publisher, focusing on U.S. foreign policy. CFR is also the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine. And, as always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. 

This webinar is part of CFR’s Local Journalists Initiative, created to help you draw connections between the local issues you cover and national and international dynamics. Our programming puts you in touch with CFR resources and expertise on international issues and provides a forum for sharing best practices. Again, thank you all for taking the time to join today’s discussion. The webinar is on the record and we will share the video and transcript afterward and post it on our website at CFR.org/localjournalists.

We are pleased to have Alice Hill, Joan Meiners, and Carla Anne Robbins with us today for the conversation on responding to extreme global heat.

Alice Hill is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for Energy and Environment at CFR. Her work focuses on the risks, consequences, and responses associated with climate change, and she previously served as special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council staff. 

Joan Meiners is a climate news and storytelling reporter at the Arizona Republic. She previously worked as an investigative environmental reporter, and she received her Ph.D. in interdisciplinary ecology at the University of Florida.

And Carla Anne Robbins is our host, and she’s a senior fellow at CFR. She’s the faculty director of the Master of International Affairs Program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. And previously she was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. 

Welcome all. Thank you for being with us. I’m going to turn the conversation now to Carla to have a discussion amongst the three of you. And then we’ll open up to everybody on the call for their questions and comments. So we look forward to hearing from all of you. Carla, over to you.

ROBBINS: Thank you, Irina. And, Joan, I didn’t know that about you. Another hyper-educated journalist. So they hired you with—I had a very hard time with a Ph.D. getting a job in journalism. People looked at me like if I’d spent those five years, you know, in an insane asylum it would have been easier to get a job in the business. So I congratulate you, you know, on getting past your academic background.

So this is great. I’m so looking forward to this conversation. We’ve all followed the news of the wildfires in Canada and the extreme heat in places—even in places where you wouldn’t expect it. You know, last week it was 105 degrees in Eugene, Oregon, 108 in Portland, and 102 in Spokane, Washington. And also been fascinated by long-term changes. I don’t know if you guys have seen the Times had this interactive—I think, about four or five years ago—how much hotter is it in your hometown than when you were born. 

And so I put in Glen Cove, New York, where I was born. And they didn’t go back as far as my birthday. We won’t talk about that. But it said—it said was only eight days versus seven days for 1960. But when I put in Miami, where I used to work, it said the city had eighty-five days above ninety in 1960 and today 133 days on average above ninety. That’s an enormous difference, nearly 50 percent more.

So, Joan—sorry, Alice, I think I’ll start with you. Alice, can you start off with some sense of the reach, scale, and likely trajectory of this problem? I mean, that 50 percent increase for Miami is a really shocking thing, and particularly when there’s still so many people out there who are saying, well, you know, this is just weather. You know, temperatures go up, temperatures go down.

HILL: Well, that’s an excellent question. And I’m just delighted to join you, Carla and Joan, to talk about this very important issue of extreme heat. Of course, with climate change we have this accumulation of greenhouse gases—carbon, methane, other gases—forming around our atmosphere and trapping heat around the Earth. The way it usually gets communicated is as a global average temperature rise of surface temperatures. But that, as your question notes, doesn’t really capture what’s occurring with the heat. Heat is one of the most certain outcomes of climate change. And by the way, in any article, I think, it would be helpful if we remind readers that it’s human-caused. There is really no dispute about this. I’m a former judge. I don’t think that this would find—the theory that this is naturally occurring would not find the light of day in a courtroom. And I don’t think litigants on either side of the issue would pursue it.

So we know that it’s human-caused. And we know that heat is the most likely thing. But the heat won’t, as you’ve said, fall evenly. This is an average rise. It doesn’t sound like much, 1.5 degrees centigrade is what we’re trying to keep it to. By the way, we already hit that this summer. That’s above pre-industrial times. Most American readers don’t know what 1.5 degrees centigrade is, because compared to Fahrenheit. And then it just doesn’t sound like that much. But when you start quoting or experiencing the types of temperatures that Joan has experienced in Phoenix, that you’re talking about in Miami, that we have this heat dome right now in a large part of the United States, those are very high temperatures. 

And that was predicted as a part of climate change, that we would have these extreme heat events. And those extreme heat events are the events that are the most deadly, and for which all communities are the least prepared—because we simply haven’t built and constructed our cities and our communities for the type of heat events that we’re experiencing, much less those that are in the future. And if you really want to feel frightened, this summer’s been very hot. July was the hottest month ever recorded. And this will probably be among the coolest summers for anyone born this year that they will ever experience in their lifetime. So we’re headed for a heap of heat going forward.

ROBBINS: So—and this sounds so incredibly uninformed, and I will stipulate with the fact that I’m not—climate change is not my thing. I wrote about proliferation and all sorts of other things over the years. How come it’s so disproportionate, even—the distance between Miami and New York isn’t even that great. So if it’s—you know, the difference in New York is only one day more, of the average of over ninety, but in Miami it’s the difference between, you know, eighty-five and 133. I mean, that’s an enormous, enormous difference. You know, why is it—what is it about climate change that does it? And what’s the implication? Does that mean the global south is going to suffer more, or people who are in a band around the equator? Or where are the disproportionate effects, and why?

HILL: Well, then—you’re absolutely right. It doesn’t fall equally. It depends on meteorological conditions, the geography, the topography, and other factors, including oceans. It’s very complex. But we know, and we have measurements that go back over—well over 150 years—that can tell us that we’re getting hotter. We see that we’re getting hotter in our poles. The Arctic is warming four times as fast as the rest of the world. So that’s why you’re seeing discussion of an ice-free Arctic Ocean. That was just incomprehensible. But China shipping tankers are going across. We have ecotourism in the Northwest Passage. We have Russia building up its northern passage with a lot of military investments. So that that area is warming very quickly and will be very active, as nations flex their muscles for security reasons and also seek to exploit it for the minerals and other things, oil potentially, that is there.

And then you’re right, the countries that will probably suffer the most are the humid, because once you combine humidity—the humid countries. So that will be our tropical nations. Once you combine humidity with heat, it can turn deadly very quickly. There’s a phenomenon that I had never heard of before I started working on climate change called the wet bulb temperature. And essentially it captures the fact that as we, as humans, our method for keeping ourselves cool is to perspire. But if it’s too humid outside, even if we’re perspiring, it doesn’t cool us off. And that means that an outdoor laborer, for example, could die within five hours just because the internal temperature would—of their body would rise. And we have already seen several of those events hit in India, for example. And it will be a growing challenge. The security experts predict that that will drive some migration going forward because it will just be deadly to live in some of these spots.

ROBBINS: Thanks. So, Joan, you are in—it’s not the heat but the humidity, but at least it’s dry in Phoenix. But you’ve also worked in New Orleans. It’s always hot in Phoenix in the summertime, but you’ve seen particular extremes this summer. I think, like, thirty-one days of something over just a ridiculously high number. Can you tell us about how it’s affecting life there? Alice was talking about the dangers. This is a place that’s accustomed to heat, at least people are accustomed to the heat, if not adapted to heat.

MEINERS: Yeah. I think that’s really interesting, the idea of being accustomed to heat, because we’re accustomed to a very narrow range of heat, right? I mean, my background is in ecology and evolution. Everything that’s alive on the planet right now has evolved in a very specific temperature range. And now—and everything that we’ve built as human society has been built for a specific temperature range, sometimes referred to as the Goldilocks Zone. And now we’re pushing things outside of that temperature range. 

And, yes, climate, that fluctuates in natural cycles. And, yes, it has been warmer and cooler in the past. I got all kinds of emails related to that from my readers. But we’re really pushing the boundaries of what we have adapted to. And Phoenix experienced—we’re already the hottest large city in America. We just set the record for the hottest month as in any U.S. city, with three days in July where temperatures hit over 119. And almost the entire month, except for the last day, was highs of over at least 110.

But the most damaging thing is that the overnight lows are not dropping as much as they used to. And part of that is climate change. And part of that is what we call the urban heat island effect. So when—as population grows, and we build more, and we build in certain ways, those impervious surfaces that we’re adding, as roads or as houses or other structures—manmade structures, they absorb heat during the day from the sun, and then they hold onto it and radiate it back out at night. So that is really the way that I think people living in Phoenix are experiencing the heatwave that we just went through the most.

And we have a very large homeless problem here. We have an estimated 10,000 people that are unhoused in the county. And they are obviously most at risk from these extreme highs, and then not getting that relief overnight because the temperatures just don’t drop. We set a record in July for the highest overnight low. So we had one night where temperatures did not drop at our weather station, which is located at the airport—temperatures did not drop below ninety-seven for an entire twenty-four-hour period. So that’s—those are really hard conditions to be living outside. 

We have a lot of heat-associated deaths that happen in this area. There’s a lot of effort to deal with those, but it’s—but it’s really hard, because, you know, the mitigation opportunities, I think, in the moment are somewhat limited. We had 425 heat-associated deaths last year. We’re on pace to exceed that this year. That’s county-wide. And about half of those are people that are experiencing homelessness. So it’s very—honestly, it’s very distressing to live here and see that. I mean ten thousand people that are experiencing homelessness, they’re not invisible. You do see them. 
I have spent some time in the downtown area that we call the zone where many of those homeless people live, reporting in the evening, talking with people about what they’re experiencing. And, you know, it’s kind of a whole nother category of what we’ve all come to know as, like, climate grief—talking to someone who, you know, you know somebody in that area of the zone is not going to make it through the night, likely. And, you know, you’re going talk to them and then go home to your air conditioning. 

And you know, Phoenix, going back to the idea of, like, we’ve constructed this place here for a specific temperature range. We’re very reliant on air conditioning now. And it’s a problematic feedback cycle where air conditioning uses a lot of energy. We don’t have—we still do use a lot of natural gas in Arizona. So we still are getting a lot of our energy from fossil fuel derived sources. And air conditioning also spits out other compounds that are known to be very potent greenhouse gases. And then as that contributes to climate change, then we have to turn the air conditioning up, and it uses more energy. 

So it’s a troubling feedback cycle here. And then the other way, just wanted to add, that that heat is different in the desert than in Miami, you know, it’s a dry heat. It might—you might be able to survive at higher temperatures without that wet bulb effect that Alice mentioned. And you are able to more—physiologically, you’re able to more effectively cool down your body when it’s less humid because your sweat can evaporate off of your skin and then create that cooling effect. But the impact that that has on the environment is that soil moisture is at an all-time low in these parts. 

We’re in a—you know, we had a relatively wet year this year in some parts of the southwest. We still are waiting on a lot of our monsoon rains specifically in the Phoenix area. But it’s just incredibly dry here. Those temperatures and the lack of rain, which is all related to kind of the atmospheric destabilization related to greenhouse gases, retain more heat now so it’s just sucking the moisture out of the soil and making it harder to live here. And then when you talk about interventions for protecting people from the heat, one of the things that the city of Phoenix wants to do is plant more trees. Well, planting trees and getting them to take root and survive is difficult when you don’t have much water and the heat is just sucking it out of the soil. So there’s all of these things going on at once. And you see it in so many different ways just living here.

ROBBINS: Thank you. And I’m going to talk more about government and public policy in a minute. So it’s—I wanted to go back to Alice for a moment. For a long time, it seemed like the climate conversation was a choice between heading off climate change or adapting to it. It almost seemed like they were the adaptation people and the—wrestling about climate change. Is that debate over with? Or is it too late to turn this back?

HILL: Well, that debate is—it’s not a debate anymore. You know, when we first started getting together, that is the countries across the globe, over 190 countries have been meeting almost for thirty years on an almost annual basis to talk about what should be done about climate change. When that started, the discussion was almost exclusively about mitigation. And mitigation in this context is used to talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions or somehow dealing with the accumulation of this thick blanket that’s around the globe that’s heating us up. And in the early years there was, I’m told, an active effort to discourage discussion of adaptation, because, of course, if we had acted on climate thirty years ago in a vigorous way—which initially it looked like might happen—we wouldn’t be in the situation that we’re in now.

So folks, scientists, didn’t want to talk about adaptation because that might be seen as giving a free pass on the very important work of reducing emissions. And now, because, as we’ve seen this summer—I mean, it is evident in every corner of the globe that climate change has arrived. We’ve seen flooding in unprecedented levels in Slovenia. The French and Germans have offered help there. And Ukraine even offered to send a helicopter in the midst of that disaster. We’ve seen the wildfires in Hawaii, Greece, in Portugal. We have seen flooding in Beijing, where they had more rain in August—four times more rain than normally. Hail the size of cantaloupe in Italy. I mean, everywhere is evidence.

And heat is the most certain consequence of climate change. But as attribution science has improved, that is the science that says this event would not have occurred like that—the Pacific Northwest heat dome that happened a couple of years ago they said would never have occurred, the scientists, absent climate change. And that attribution science continues to improve. And so we can put our fingerprints on—or, identify the fingerprints of climate change on particular events. When I started in this business, you couldn’t say. You could just say it’s consistent with a trend. But now we can.

So with that background, adaptation has moved to the fore. That doesn’t mean that it’s getting the attention that is necessary because, as Joan has said, everything we have in place was built based on an assumption that our climate was stable. That assumption is no longer valid. But we have everything in place. In fact, our current building codes are based on that assumption. So even if we take confidence that we’re building something new, that should better withstand a rain bomb, as the emergency managers call it, or a wildfire. Maybe not, because we haven’t done that work yet. So we have a lot of stuff that’s vulnerable to what’s going to happen. So we need to focus on adaptation.

But if you look at the amount of money that governments and philanthropies are giving to adaptation, it’s very small in comparison to mitigation. The numbers vary, but it’s well below 50 percent. The poorer nations of the world have been asking for a loss and damage fund to help them pay for adaptation going forward. That still hasn’t been funded. Developed nations promised $100 billion a year to the developing world towards climate change starting 2020. The developed world has not honored that. And the money that has come forward has been mostly for mitigation.

One of the reasons for that is mitigation is easier to do. As hard as it is, it’s—and it’s easier to measure. You just measure the amount of carbon that you didn’t send into the atmosphere, or that you took out of the atmosphere. But adaptation is many, many thousands of decisions. How high should the drainage pipe be? How much flammable-resistant material do you need? What’s the setback on the vegetation? What is safe? What’s the elevation of the home? What’s the area—is the area going to be flooded and burned again? Should we even build there? And those local decisions become highly politicized very quickly. Another reason adaptation, I think, has suffered.
It was the head of the British climate change adaptation committee who summed it up. She said that it’s under-resourced, underfunded, and often ignored. And she likened it to the poor cousin that comes to your dinner—you know, your holiday dinner, and is seated at the end of the table, and no one talks to that poor cousin. That’s still a little bit what adaptation feels like. A lot of people saying, yeah, we got to get on it. We’re going to do a lot, including the secretary general of the U.N.

But the money hasn’t materialized nor have the ideas materialized that will keep people safe for the kinds of events we’re already experiencing, much less those in the future.
And we have to remember that even though it’s the biggest—or the highest record, all these records broken this year, with climate change we’re moving forward to even bigger events. And they actually get exponentially bigger. So we’re just at the beginning of experiencing what climate change will mean for communities like Phoenix, Miami, Hawaii, you name it.

ROBBINS: So I want to—we already have one question, and I want to throw it open to—since so many journalists, and I’m sure they have many questions. But I did want to ask Joan, this is, as you said, the hottest city in America. And while there may be sort of a political back and forth, you know, on the climate issue—and you do—I’m sure—you said you get emails from people all the time saying, isn’t this just weather? That said, people experience this. So what sort of public policy is going on there? And, you know, you have written about housing, for example. You know, is there anything positive going on there to try to deal with adaptation to at least ensure that people can live better, can survive, move on from this in some way?

MEINERS: Yes. So, Phoenix—the city of Phoenix launched the first publicly funded Office of Heat Response and Mitigation in 2021. The opinions on how much progress they’ve really made are a little bit mixed, but they do have—you know, they recently put out a list of thirty-one different strategies that they’re working on pursuing to try to—long-term strategies for mitigating the impact of heat. Such, as I mentioned, planting more trees, especially in neighborhoods where the impact of extreme heat in the urban environment is not even. We definitely have a lot of neighborhoods that are cooler. They’re the wealthier ones typically. And then lower income, typically minority, neighborhoods tend to be hotter with less shade. So they’re working on trying to even that out, plant more trees.

They have a cool pavement program where they’re painting the road. I think they have about 100 miles of roads that have been painted with a lighter coating that also has somewhat mixed effects, because it reduces kind of the overall heat in the general environment, but it can reflect heat back up onto an individual person who’s walking down that street and actually make it hotter for them.

They’re talking about launching a cool roofs program. And then on the more immediate response side, they are doing things like trying to launch a water truck that’s going to drive around and make sure that people have water, although that’s not up and running yet two years in. And they have a network called the Heat Relief Network of about 200 cooling centers, which are mostly private businesses that have agreed to let people come inside into the air conditioning on very hot days without necessarily buying anything from the business.

I did write last year about how it’s unclear how effective many of these things are, because we don’t—they don’t have anybody going and looking at visitation at these cooling centers. They don’t have anybody looking at the being—they don’t—there’s not a good way to study, you know, what would happen if this cooling center wasn’t open. And a lot of them do close overnight. So I mentioned the overnight temperature. It’s very—even if you were able to spend the day in air conditioning, it takes a very big toll on your body to spend the night outside when it’s ninety-seven degrees. So and then, you know, we mentioned that Arizona State University is local. They have a very strong emphasis on sustainability. They have a lot of—a lot of global leaders in sustainable innovation are based here. 

And so my sense is that there’s kind of a lot of really promising ideas, and directions, and intentions. And it kind of relates to what Alex was saying about, you know, the United Nations approach to climate change where, you know, they had a whole meeting last year where they created a loss and damage fund, which sounds like a great idea to have rich countries help poor countries pay for the impacts of climate change. But then they didn’t put any money into it. So, you know, it’s a little bit—I actually attended an opening of—I can’t remember the exact name, but there was a new center at Arizona State University for studying water and, you know, the drought crisis and how we’re going to deal with that. And they had a launch event. It was funded to the tune of $40 million. They had a launching event where they invited me and they had a panel of experts. 
And they were talking about how it’s time to stop talking about what we should do and start doing it. And I’m kind of sitting in the audience like, OK, so when does that happen, exactly? So, yeah, there’s a lot of—there’s a lot of talk and promise, but also, like Alice said, you know, there seemed like there was talk and promise about addressing climate change aggressively thirty years ago, and now look where we are. So, I don’t know. Phoenix is going to get harder to live in. We’re going to have to make some really hard decisions. And I don’t know exactly what the breaking point is going to have to be before those changes happen.

ROBBINS: And so much of this is because, as Alice said, these are regulatory issues. And these are government telling people they have to do things. And that sort of stirs up a lot of local resistance. We have questions, yay. So I’m going to turn it over to Holly, is it, Edgell -I hope I’m pronouncing it correctly- who is the editor of race, identity, and culture at KWMU FM in St. Louis. Holly, do you want to ask your question, or should I read it?

OPERATOR: Carla, you’re supposed to read the question.

ROBBINS: I’m not necessarily supposed to read the question. Holly can read it if she wants. So she can—it’s up to you, Holly. I can read it.

I’m curious to know who is leading the way in designing and building affordable homes that take into account extreme heat, i.e., with HVAC and also with design construction practices that can keep us cool and have net-zero impact.

Alice? Joan? Yeah.

HILL: Sure. So we have a LEED-certified program, which looks at the issue of getting to buildings that don’t emit a lot of harmful pollution. But we don’t have a robust equivalent of that for building codes. And one thing to keep in mind, under our Constitution in the United States the decisions about where and how people build are decisions that occur at the state and local level. They do not—they’re not federal decisions. The federal government can provide incentives for better decision-making, but it really falls to the state and local governments. We do have a system of NGOs that—or, nongovernmental organizations that create model building codes. To my knowledge, those organizations, and this isn’t a problem unique to the United States, are still trying to figure out what a building code would look like that would be resilient to future impacts of climate change. So as I said, we’re still building things to the old codes that—or the codes—even if they’re brand-new codes, they’re looking to the past. They haven’t incorporated the future risk.

So what you get then is one-offs. I think I read at one time, for affordable housing Habitat for Humanity was trying to do some resilience work. In Alabama, you have an effort called Fortified, where builders get a fortification or fortified certificate that shows that the building is Hurricane resistant, and also might be—I don’t know about the carbon pollution side, but least hurricane resistant. And then you have a lot of architects who are being very creative, going back to ancient methods for cooling buildings. So making sure that they get that passive airflow. And this is going to be very important, that we rethink about what buildings can do in very extreme conditions, including heat, because during these extreme conditions, you might well lose your power. And if you lose your power, you’re not going to have that backup air conditioning system. So if you can’t open your windows, you might be just in an oven going forward and have to evacuate the building.
So you’ll see—I’ve talked to architects in Austin, Texas who were trying to do innovative designs to look back at how Texans historically built, at how Mexico historically built houses. But the architects will be honest. They’ll say, you know, you got to find a client who’s willing to pay for it.

And often it comes down, if it’s a developer, it’s an issue of money. And they—the developer wants to sell the house—or build the house as cheaply as possible. And when I was working on trying to get stronger building codes when I was in the White House, I was told a developer said: If it costs a dollar more, we’re against it. And I think that’s part of the reason why we’ve had so much trouble getting to model building codes that reflect the future risks, because there probably will be, in some instances—maybe not wildfire, but with flooding or other—additional costs, so that the building is more resilient.

So you get one-offs, where you’ll get a very exciting building built that it does all these things. But to my knowledge, it hasn’t been adopted on a widespread basis yet. And I think that’s going to require incentives from governments to encourage better decision-making and better choices going forward. I don’t think that the federal government has risen to that challenge yet, in a meaningful way. And so it means that we’re going to see more damages going forward. And, of course, if you follow NOAA’s work, and the rise in the so-called billion-dollar events—extreme weather events that cost more than a billion dollars, one single event—the average number of events—I think it was, like, ten years ago. And now it’s eighteen. And I just read that, as of the first six months, we had fifteen separate billion-dollar events here in the United States. So we’re suffering a great deal more damage as we experience these first instances of climate-worsened extremes.

MEINERS: I add that in Arizona, if you like. 

ROBBINS: Sure, absolutely. And I’m going to add in a question for you on top of that, just very quickly, which is Kerry Snyder, who is the editor for science, health, and technology at KJZZ. And, Carrie, you can jump in after this if I haven’t summed it up—on top of this.
She’s asking, and you as a reporter, should climate change/global warming be called “pollution,” to better explain its human cause? And I’m just wondering, since you have a somewhat skeptical audience in your readership, is there better language we could be used be using? So jumping in on either or both of those.

MEINERS: Yeah. I do think that that is a direction that could help. You know, we have all sorts of different kinds of pollution, from—I recently wrote about, you know, there was a roundtable event where a bunch of experts got together and talked about different ways to notify the public about extreme pollution advisories and get the word out. And pollution can come in so many different forms. I mean, here we have dust storms that are bad for your health if you’re outside. And I—you know, I get alerts on my phone about, you know, don’t spend time outside, that there’s a dust storm. We have ozone, We have, obviously, you know, soot—that that type of pollution that you can see. Ozone you can’t see.

And so I think that it makes sense to describe it that way and help people understand, A, that it’s bad and, B, that we’re causing it and, C, that we want to get that—those levels down. So I like that suggestion. And then, just to touch back on the housing question, I’ve actually spent the whole year working on an investigation into how Arizona is building, because Maricopa County is the fastest-growing county in in the country in terms of number of new residents that moved here in 2022, according to Census records. And we’re building at a very fast rate. And, like I mentioned, the urban heat island effect, it only gets hotter the more we build. So it matters a whole lot the ways that we’re building. 

And I’ll just give a quick plug for an investigative story I have publishing Thursday that looks at where we did an independent review of all the building codes, like Alice was talking about, in in Maricopa County municipalities, which is the county where Phoenix is, and compared kind of which—because Arizona does not have a statewide building code. And so each jurisdiction adopts upgrades on their own, on their own timescale, and according to their own values. And kind of just to tease the results that haven’t—the findings that haven’t published yet, we found that the places that are really pursuing more sustainable models of homebuilding, which do exist. You know, LEED certification is one example that isn’t necessarily the way to go, but because it just adds so much cost to the process to get it LEED certified, but it’s just kind of a way of saying that there are these ways of building that are possible.

We found that a lot of the areas that have—that are requiring more sustainable climate-aware modes of homebuilding, are not actually where most of the building is happening. So we have to figure out some way to—if we’re approaching this as the way to protect people from the heat and reduce, you know, greenhouse gas emissions at every level of geography, and type of construction, and type of generation, use of energy, we need a different approach. Because the way that we’re building homes in Arizona is not going to get people housed in a cooler environment anytime soon, based on our findings. And part of that is this kind of piecemeal approach to adopting building code upgrades, which are only—are typically only issued every three years, but do represent big leaps and bounds in progress because of how quickly some of that energy efficiency technology is moving. So mixed feelings about that. But, yeah, that story’s out on Thursday, if you’re interested.

ROBBINS: We will send out the link, absolutely.

So, Charles Ellison has both written in his question and put his hand up. Charles, would you like to pose your question?

Q: Sure, I can. Can you hear me?

ROBBINS: Yes. And you want to identify yourself?

Q: Sure, Charles Ellison. Yeah, I’m the contributing editor for the Philadelphia Citizen. And thank you all for this discussion. Really do appreciate it. I’m also an Emerson Collective fellow for this year, a climate contributor, focusing on climate issues.

So I’m real curious about the racial equity dimensions of this discussion. You know, because I would say—I know the point was made earlier that we wouldn’t be where we are now, you know, had we just moved more aggressively thirty years ago on climate adaptation. And I would argue that, well, didn’t do that because we weren’t moving aggressively on racial equity—issues the way we should have been, and still shouldn’t be doing now, thirty years ago. And I’m just wondering why the racial equity dimensions just continue not taking center stage on these types of discussions. 
I’m in Toronto right now at a convening of state and provincial legislators. And they’re even acknowledging it. They’re saying, you know what? We should be having discussions about the history of redlining, segregation, about how climate crisis started in the first place—hundreds of years ago with slavery and the rise of capitalism—and we’re not. But to your point, I think it’s Joan, you know, you were talking about, you know, more people moving into Phoenix. Well, 10 percent of that growth into Phoenix are Black residents who are moving into Phoenix. 

So the racial equity dimensions really on these climate discussions have got to be more centered. And it’s just not happening at the rate that it should be. And I’m wondering, are you all having those discussions as you’re talking about climate crisis and as it’s getting worse? Thank you.

ROBBINS: Thank you. Alice, is that penetrating any of—

HILL: Sure. Excellent question. And I want to just get to the pollution question first, because I will—I absolutely agree that using pollution is a powerful thing. But I will tell you, I just wrote a piece not two days ago. And the editor said, I don’t get this. Why are you saying carbon pollution? So it may not be widely understood, was my—the message I got from that. And so I put in a—you know, a little explainer, what I was referring to. But just to flag that. I think it is more accurate that it’s pollution. It’s human caused, and it’s very much damaging us.

And, Charles, your question, absolutely. The impacts of climate change fall unequally geographically, and they fall unequally economically. So we see that the people who tend to be flooded may have been in areas that were redlined. And therefore—and that’s what recent academic work has shown. We see right now a battle over carbon capture in disadvantaged communities, and the concern that that will be a noxious industry, that will be again on the backs of those who’ve suffered from racial discrimination and economic discrimination.

I would say that in recent years the topic has become a subject that is more commonly discussed. There is a lot of work looking at FEMA’s programs. FEMA in the past tended to value just property. And if you just look at property, the who owns the most expensive property? You’re going to find that it’s going to be a more White people on the most expensive property. And if you’re going to base aid on that, you’re going to see some wide discrepancies. And that is, in fact, what the research showed. 

So now FEMA is trying to come up with different metrics. The impacts on the community and other ways of measuring harm. They’ve also, and you may be aware of this, changed their policy about proof of ownership, because it found that some Black communities didn’t have deeds to their property that had been handed down generation to generation. And so when FEMA demanded proof of ownership of the damaged building, it couldn’t be produced. And FEMA has recognized that that was a practice that resulted in inequality and came from inequality.

So I think it’s more at the forefront than certainly in my experience, starting in 2009. But we have a long way to go because we are not making the types of investments anywhere, but also as we start, who’s living in the river bottom? It’s going to be Black people who were forced there because that was the only land that was available to them. And now, generations later, who’s going to help them get out of that river bottom that is going to flood? And we don’t have the answers to those questions yet. It falls on local communities whether they want to do so-called buyouts to help people get out. And these programs may be available, but if there’s not the local will to adopt it, there could be even more negative impacts.

So I don’t have the answers. I can just tell you, I see many more people discussing it and looking at it. In fact, there was just—there’s very little legislation done on resilience. But I think there’s community disaster resilience zones, was a bipartisan piece of legislation last year that’s going to take a variety of data sets and overlay them and identify the most disadvantaged communities in the United States, and figure out how we’re going to get more money to those communities to help them prepare for climate and other types of disasters. So there’s recognition that we’ve done a poor job and we’ve got to do better going forward.

ROBBINS: I want to ask a reporting question of Joan that’s been posed. But before I do that, I just want to have a correction here. I used to do corrections of the Times. Holly Edgell is the managing editor of the Midwest newsroom for NPR. So great job, Holly. So I just wanted to get that out to everyone.

So Luis Joel Mendez Gonzalez, who is the—I’m just looking here at our list here—covers government preparedness around climate change for the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, the Center for Investigative Journalism. Luis, do you want to ask your question, or should I ask it for you? Sure. Anyway, well, the question that he posed is, I think, Joan, that—he asked, where can he find public data about heat-related deaths in the U.S., and are data on territories like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands included as well? I know you’ve done a lot of investigative reporting.

So what are the best data sources for people, particularly in different parts of the country?

MEINERS: Heat-related deaths is the tough one. Because we are Phoenix and it’s so hot here, our county public health department tracks heat-associated deaths probably better than most places. But it’s kind of similar to the issue with COVID, where if someone has COVID and then has a heart attack and dies, do you call that a heart attack death or COVID death? And you’re going to have go fighting over that. We have the same situation with heat-associated deaths. It’s sometimes hard—there are sometimes multiple factors. So it’s hard to point to exactly what was the cause of death, is my understanding.

And there is a data—there is also a data availability issue, where I think the CDC is starting to track this. I’m not sure if it includes Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. It’s not good-quality data yet. I think that there’s more attention being given to the need for that. But it might be more of a situation at the moment where your local public health department might have better records. Of course. that hard to piece together if you want to do something bigger picture. But that is one of the issues, is just how do we even define heat-associated death? How do we count those? Who’s keeping track of all of this? I think that’s an ongoing conversation.

And then I just wanted to just speak briefly to the—to the racism question of, unfortunately, I think that sort of the answer to why aren’t we talking more about racism in addressing—in climate mitigation? I think the answer to that is, kind of, racism. As part of this housing project that I’ve been working on, I spent some time up on the Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona. And there are thousands—tens of thousands of homes there that lack running water and electricity, and are not—you know, of course, it’s a sovereign nation—but, you know, just have not received equivalent funding as other parts of the U.S. for those kind of—that kind of infrastructure, and have not received the attention for it either.

So they are weathering these increasing temperatures without power, in many cases without running water. And so there’s many ways that this is happening. And I wish I had a better answer for how we approach that. But I think it’s a good thing to keep talking about.

ROBBINS: Alex, do you—I mean, you do a lot of research. Are there good sources of data that would be useful for journalists that we—you know, that we haven’t already talked about? Not just for heat-related deaths, but other things that have a direct impact on people’s lives and in the country, but with climate now? Is the federal government keeping data? Or is it independent NGOs that we should be looking at? Is it—you know, is it some sort of international data sources?

HILL: Well, that’s a great question. I mean, one of the challenges we have is that—what kind of data are we talking about? But let’s say we’re talking about data for future risks from climate change. We haven’t solved that problem here in the United States. And I was in the White House, there was an attempt to try to pull together all of the fantastic science that is being done by NOAA, and NASA, and others to make it more user-friendly so that a person could figure out whether a particular location would suffer. I’ll never forget, I met a part-time mayor from Perdido Beach, Alabama. This is about ten years ago. And she said to me, you know, I get it. I get that my community has climate risks. We’ve got sea-level rise, bigger storms. It’s right there—Perdido Beach is right there on the Gulf Coast. She said, but I’m a part-time mayor. I don’t have anyone to help me figure out what’s ahead, or do a grant, or anything else. And we haven’t solved that. We haven’t made it easy for her yet. And it’s not easy for anyone. 

There has been a private philanthropic effort, or funded by philanthropy, called The First Street Foundation. And they have partnered with Redfin. So now you can go in and type your address and figure out—they’ll give you some modeling score—based on a score, telling you what your property is at risk for. Now the challenge for that is modeling is generally a black box. So we don’t—I’ve talked to actuaries and modelers who have criticized. They don’t know 100 percent what’s behind all modeling. And they just—there’s some of the assumptions, whenever you’re modeling something going forward you’re making some assumptions. So but First Street Foundation has done this, and the government has not.

I believe that we need to have publicly available data sets and information for informed decision. But we’re not seeing that. And what we’re instead seeing is an arms race in the private sector among the big consultancies to provide, and they’re gobbling up the modeling firms. And they will sell products to the private corporations, but the—you know, what is the city of—what does the city of Phoenix get? Phoenix may be large enough it can purchase such datasets or analysis, but you get to the smaller places, they can’t do it. And so that’s where we’re going to see—again, to this question of inequity—we’re going to see inequity also in terms of which communities are able to deal with this better than others.

Within their own communities there will be inequities. But if you’re talking about a city at large that’s poor, it’s going to be really challenged. And unfortunately, the federal government has not figured out a way to make what I think is a public good available so that we would have better planning across the board.

ROBBINS: So we have—thank you for that. We have three minutes left. Lori—I’m sorry—Lori Valigra, who’s the business and economy reporter at the Bangor Daily News has a question. Lori, I’m just going to read it really quickly.

So Lori says that we had our hottest day in Maine on July 6th, ninety-two degrees. How can residents in an area not accustomed to high heat prepare for it and adjust to it? You know, Joan, you see this every day in a really hot place. Are there lessons that are applicable to Maine as well?
MEINERS: Yeah. And I think it’s really good to be thinking about that in Maine. Some of the scariest heat wave death events have been in places that are not actually that hot, but just, you know, don’t have air conditioning in every single house to be able to respond to something like a heatwave. So knowing other ways that you can respond is really—can be lifesaving. In Phoenix, there are signs all over the place, at every hiking trailhead, all kinds of things. I mean, generally, you know, stay in the shade, drink water. The quickest way to cool down is to—if you get overheated—is to immerse yourself in water. I talked to some exercise physiologists that that deal—at the Korey Stringer Institute—that deal with heat exertion, and that’s what they say. Get people into an ice bath if it’s an emergency situation.

Other than that, going back to the—those are obviously for if you’re outside. And then knowing kind of that the signs of heatstroke and heat illness are also important. So kind of it starts out with excessive sweating, kind of flushing and feeling lightheaded. And then as it progresses, that actually becomes, you know, your skin is cool and clammy, you’re not sweating because your body is confused and trying to retain that water. Those are things to just be aware of so that you know when it’s time to really go to the emergency room. But otherwise, going back—circling back to the housing idea, you know, if you know that it’s coming, close your blinds in the morning, try to make sure that you are stocked up with supplies. Talk to your local representatives about blackout prevention, things like that. 

And look into—Arizona this year got some weatherization funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law. And to go in and add better—upgrade insulation, and kind of update vents and cooling systems in houses. So that’s something that can be looked into too. I talked to an insulation expert who said that, you know, what builders have been required to put into homes in terms of insulation over the years has just changed drastically in recent times, and can make a huge, huge difference. So if you don’t know what’s inside your walls, and you have a little bit of extra money to put towards that, that could be something that would make a big difference.

HILL: May I just add one additional?

ROBBINS: Yes, please. Quickly.

HILL: There was a very famous study of a community—two very similar communities right next to each other in Chicago. I think it was in the 1990s. Terrible heatwave. And one community suffered far greater deaths than the other community, even though on base they looked very similar. And researchers determined that one of the differences was social connection. We’d see that people who live alone, the elderly, are at greater risk of dying. And those that had neighbors checking up on them, that knew Betty hadn’t shown up, were more likely to be saved. So for all of us as we face more disasters it’s recommended, and I think there’s a big payoff, that we know our neighbors, we know our communities better, and figure out how we can work together to keep everybody safe.

ROBBINS: That is a great way to end. And I really appreciate Joan and Alice for joining us. This was a great conversation. I’m going to turn it back to Irina now. And thank you for all the great questions.

FASKIANOS: I echo Carla’s thanks for doing this. We appreciate it. And to all of you for your wonderful questions and comments. We will be sending out a link to this webinar, to the recording and transcript as well as any other resources that Alice and Joan want us to include. I neglected to mention that Alice is the author of a book, The Fight for Climate After COVID-19. So, I commend that to all of you. And you can follow them, I think, on X, if you still are on X. Alice Hill at @alice_c_hill, Joan Meiners at @beecycles, and Carla Anne Robbins at @robbinscarla. And, as always, we encourage you to visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for the latest developments and analysis on international trends and how they are affecting the United States. And please do share with us your suggestions for future webinars and speakers. You can email us at [email protected]. So thank you all again for today’s conversation. We appreciate it.

ROBBINS: Thanks, guys.

HILL: Take care.

MEINERS: Thank you so much.


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