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State policies on extreme heat seen as critical in mitigating climate change effects

Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — With communities around the country suffering from extreme temperatures, just months after some of those same locations saw unbearable cold snaps, some state leaders are taking the initiative with proposals to help people navigate the consequences of climate change.

In California, state leaders have been pushing a legislative package that they say plans around the new normal of consistent 100-degree weather. Proposals like an extreme heat ranking system, similar to ones used in hurricanes, mandate cooling during high heat days and the creation of a chief heat officer are crucial for the wellbeing of residents, according to the bills’ supporters.

“We cannot wait for the federal government to do something,” state Assemblywoman Luz Rivas, who co-introduced the bills, told ABC News. “People are dying of extreme heat every day.”

Environmental experts agreed and said that more states and localities need to focus on extreme weather policies that are tailor made for their regions and do so soon.

“We don’t have any national adaption plan and as far as I know there is no talk about it,” Sarah Pralle, an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University who specializes in environmental policy, told ABC News. “That’s going to hurt us as more and more states experience these climate induced disasters.”

California legislators work to beat the heat

In May, the California state Assembly passed a series of bills that provide safeguards and protections for residents during high heatwaves, and are currently awaiting hearings in the state senate.

Under Rivas’ extreme heat ranking bill, the state’s Environmental Protection Agency would issue alerts with either a letter, number or color indicator that would warn a specific community about the heat threats to their area.

The assemblywoman noted that different parts of the state experience worse effects from heat waves, such as communities closer to the desert that are experiencing drought or neighborhoods that are higher risk for wildfires, and need different disaster preparations.

“The alert would provide recommendations to people with adequate time and how to compare and when it’s best to remain indoors,” Rivas said.

If passed, the warning system would make California the first state in the nation to have an extreme heat alert system, according to the assemblywoman.

Rivas said her heat related bill would create a chief heat officer, an extreme heat advisory council and interagency heat task force under the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. That officer and agencies would be tasked with preparing local governments with short- and long-term efforts to safeguard people from the heat and would provide grants for projects such as cooling centers in rural areas.

Rivas noted that several cities around the world, such as Athens and Miami, have recently created chief heat officer roles to streamline the process for getting mitigation efforts done and to have a dedicated staff focused on the high heat.

“In California we have multiple programs that can be spread over many agencies, but the idea of having this centralized position and office is crucial,” the assemblywoman said. “I think our local governments need the support from a statewide officer.”

Other approved heat related bills that are making their way through the state include assembly bill 2243 that would get a “ultraheat heat standard” for people working outdoors and require access to cool water and frequent rest periods, and assembly bill 2597 which would change building codes to require “safe maximum indoor air temperature” in newly constructed and existing dwelling units.

A good start that others can follow

Environmental experts tell ABC News that California’s bills could inspire other states and even the federal government to adopt similar measures.

Pralle said that the bill to create an extreme heat office will be beneficial, if approved, because it would keep the momentum for solutions to heat related problems consistent.

“The problem with disaster policy is there is a lot of attention during and after the disaster, we move onto different things,” she said. “The bad news about climate change is that these disasters keep happening so the conversations about policy have to keep going. So having an office whose job is to stay focused on this problem is a good thing.”

Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, who has advised lawmakers in state legislators across the country on policies, told ABC News that it is difficult to gauge the success of environmental policies because of the rapidly worsening climate change effects.

“All of these adaption strategies are hard to do, because you’re spending money today and you’re not getting credit or results until years later,” he told ABC News. “Even climate scientists don’t understand the number of disruptions that are coming and how much we have to adapt.”

But when one state comes up with successful programs, Kammen said others are quick to follow suit. He cited California’s 2018 adoption of the zero carbon emissions as an example.

The executive order mandated state agencies to meet a goal of 100% carbon free electricity by 2045 and called on various state agencies to work on proposals to achieve the goal.

As of today, 20 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have adapted similar zero carbon goals, according to the Clean Energy States Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of state energy organizations.

“State actions are invariably the way we test drive policies,” Kammen said.

Kammen said the latest California heat policies would be beneficial to other parts of the region, even those with completely different environments. He emphasized that the bills aimed at identifying which populations are most vulnerable to extreme heat is a topic that every state is dealing with.

“We need to be able to protect the most vulnerable. Those local and state efforts that invest in cooling are critical,” he said.

Kammen said other states have considered similar bills in the past for requiring workplace and housing safety during high heat and extreme cold weather, including New York. Policy makers will be keeping tabs on the progress of California’s bill and take any successful components that will apply to their states’ vulnerable neighborhoods, he predicted.

Kammen added that even states that haven’t made past investments or policies in combatting extreme weather are now facing the reality of climate change and taking legislative action.

He noted that Texas’s energy company began rolling out funding and proposals to improve its energy efficiency with new energy storage units which can provide clean fuel during outages after the stage was rocked by the cold winter storms in 2021.

“Texas to this day actually has the most energy storage that is now scheduled to be built. There are more energy storage projects in the build queue than the rest of the country combined,” Kammen said.

More work needed

Pralle said the California bills and other state initiatives are a good start to mitigating extreme temperatures but emphasized that those actions alone won’t be enough to help people.

She said many of the proposals issued by states call for more studies and aren’t changing the laws fast enough to deal with the problem.

“There are lot of good ideas out there, but my concern is that they’re not regulatory enough,” she said.

Pralle also emphasized that while hyperlocal environmental policies help to remedy communities specific extreme heat problems, they also come with hinderances. For example, state environmental policies may conflict with ones issued at the national level and lead to confusion among local officials.

“Having some innovation and ideas and having people do different things isn’t a bad thing,” she said. “However there comes a time when you have a patchwork of programs and that can be confusing.”

Pralle said that the best outcome for a state specific climate policy would be one that is successful enough to prompt the federal government to copy and implement nationally.

She contended that it’s going to take the entire country has to band together and move quickly, and any small step from local governments works.

“A national approach is better, but it’s been difficult to get that done. States do need to step in,” she said.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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