As California braces for the most intense and prolonged heat wave of the year, state officials are investing in new methods to warn residents of the dangers of rising temperatures.
Extreme heat is one of the deadliest of all weather-related events, with the National Weather Service recording more heat-related fatalities than deaths from hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and other climate hazards by 2022.
In California, state officials have been criticized for their response to extreme heat, which disproportionately affects children and the elderly, those with chronic illnesses, the disabled and pregnant women. A 2021 Los Angeles Times study found that heat in the state has likely caused about 3,900 deaths over the past decade — six times the official number.
The $20 million “Heat Ready CA” campaign launched by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Office of Community Partnerships and Strategic Communications on Tuesday aims to remedy this through enhanced outreach, advertising and communications efforts.
“The impacts of climate change have never been more apparent — it’s getting hotter in our state and across the west, putting millions of Californians at risk,” Newsom said in a statement. “California is launching Heat Ready CA as another tool in the state’s arsenal to protect people from extreme heat. We are asking everyone to stay alert to changing weather conditions and take the necessary steps to protect themselves and their families from deadly heat waves. “
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The campaign is part of the governor’s larger $404 million investment in extreme heat, led by the Extreme Heat Action plan unveiled last year. The Heat Ready campaign will partner with 121 community organizations to conduct outreach in each county in more than 30 languages through door-to-door surveys, phone banking and other community activations, officials said.
Louis Bloomberg, a climate policy adviser at the nonprofit Climate Resolve, said he has been waiting for a coordinated public awareness campaign from the state for nearly a decade.
“It’s a proactive move and it will hopefully save some lives,” Bloomberg said.
But improved public communication is just one of many strategies outlined in the Extreme Heat Action plan, which also recommends infrastructure improvements, better monitoring of heat-related deaths, and increased investments in shade and green space, among other things.
Bloomberg said the state is making some progress toward those goals — including $10 million for a statewide heat monitoring system unveiled to date — but more clarity and oversight is needed. A bill making its way through the legislature, SB 306, requires regular updates to the Extreme Heat Action plan and better monitoring of progress toward its goals.
“The plan is more like a list or a catalog of what could happen, but there is no specificity or accountability, there are no hard priorities or implementation schedule,” he said. “So yes, this is a good start – a good start, really important and timely – and there is more we can do.”
Indeed, the public education campaign comes as the planet continues to break all heat records, with global average temperatures in recent days skyrocketing higher than ever recorded, largely due to climate change and the onset of El Niño, a pattern in the tropical Pacific Ocean associated with warmer conditions.
The arrival of El Niño is likely to make at least one of the next five years — and the five-year period as a whole — the world’s warmest on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Meanwhile, sea surface temperatures are reaching alarming new highs, while the amount of Arctic sea is hitting a record low. (The Canadian Arctic reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday for the first time in recorded history.)
“The Earth is in a fever, and from our perspective in California, we have made progress in protecting people from increasing climate impacts,” said Wade Crowfoot, California Secretary of Natural Resources. “We can and will protect communities and help people protect themselves from extreme heat. At the same time, I think we’ve been very clear — and the governor and legislature have been very clear — that this is a climate emergency.”
A simmering heat wave has already engulfed parts of the United States, including large parts of Florida, Texas and Arizona. Phoenix just saw 10 straight days with temperatures of 110 degrees or higher, and chances are it will stay that hot for at least another week. Las Vegas is expected to rise to 117 degrees by Sunday, while Corpus Christi, Texas, could see the heat index rise to 115.
The heat is also coming to California. The National Weather Service has issued excessive heat warnings for much of the Central Valley, where dangerously hot temperatures of up to 115 degrees are possible later this week. In Los Angeles, the incoming heat wave could reach temperatures as high as 112 degrees in the Antelope Valley, 105 degrees in the San Gabriel Valley and 90 degrees in central LA by the end of the week.
Officials said the education campaign will play a vital role in reducing some of the deadliest effects of heat. Similar initiatives around the census and the COVID-19 pandemic have already proven successful, said Maricela Rodriguez, Newsom’s senior advisor on citizen engagement and strategic partnerships.
“We’ve found great success with the model we’re applying now, which includes not only a culturally responsive approach when it comes to communication and public awareness, but also having a trusted messaging network that can reach people – especially in underserved areas .” communities – which are hard to reach,” she said.
Read more: Heat waves are much more deadly than we think. How California is ignoring this climate threat
During extreme heat, human bodies have to work harde
r to stay cool. This can lead to headaches, dizziness, nausea, breathing problems and heat stroke, among other things. It is especially dangerous when temperatures remain high at night, leaving people with no chance of relief.
And while extreme heat usually affects the most vulnerable, even healthy young people could be at risk, said Tomás Aragón, director of the California Department of Public Health.
“You can be completely healthy physically and be in trouble within 60 minutes because your body is producing heat quickly, your body isn’t used to the high temperatures, and then all of a sudden your core internal temperature starts to rise, and that’s when your organs start to go into the trouble,” he said. “People really underestimate it.”
Aragón said it can be challenging for government officials to accurately account for heat-related illnesses and deaths, especially as they can be compounded by underlying health conditions. It often takes months to arrive at an accurate number based on death certificates and excess death records, he said.
But Bloomberg, of Climate Resolve, noted that other states, including Washington and Oregon, already have statewide heat monitoring systems that can turn data around in a weekend. He hoped the California system would be up and running soon, along with other efforts such as heat standards for indoor workers and a heat wave rating system, both of which are squirming for approval by state agencies.
“These are preventable deaths,” he said. “If we intervene properly and quickly, we can prevent people from dying.”
State officials are advising anyone in the path of the incoming heat wave to stay hydrated and stay indoors and in air conditioning as much as possible. Never leave children and pets alone in hot cars.
Los Angeles County opened nearly 170 cold storage centers prior to the heat wave. A list of refrigeration centers by province can be found here.
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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.