Extreme heat is the deadliest weather-related hazard in the United States—a fact that historically has gone underrecognized. Experts consider heat a silent killer, resulting in more than 600 deaths per year as well as illnesses like respiratory difficulties and heat stroke. Heat also has negative implications for the economy, the environment, and infrastructure.

And the threat is growing. Climate change has raised average temperatures and the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme heat events. And as cities continue to grow, heat is increasingly an urban problem (PDF), with more people exposed to the urban heat island effect—a phenomenon in which urbanized areas experience higher temperatures than surrounding regions because of building density, heat-absorbing materials such as concrete, and limited vegetation.

Heat’s life-threatening effects are not felt equally. The legacy of racist housing policies and historic disinvestment in neighborhoods with low incomes and communities of color make these neighborhoods more likely to be hotter and less likely to have access to resources to cope with extreme temperatures.

Because of these disparities, extreme heat cannot be addressed without prioritizing equity. Drawing on conversations with government officials, academics, and climate-focused funders, as well as a review of scholarly literature, news media, and city planning documents, our recent brief offers recommendations on how local governments can center equity in extreme heat programs and policies.

We drew our lessons from communities in the US taking decisive actions to address extreme heat. Miami-Dade County appointed the world’s first chief heat officer to assess the county’s vulnerabilities and develop a framework for countywide heat strategies. The City of Phoenix established the Office of Heat Response and Mitigation to develop a strategic action plan to address extreme heat. And smaller cities and towns like Clarksville and Richmond in Indiana have assigned heat coordinators as part of their statewide Beat the Heat program. Many other cities are undertaking urban heat island mapping campaigns to understand their communities’ vulnerabilities using funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

To ensure extreme heat solutions like these are targeted to the most-affected areas, we recommend policymakers consider four evaluative dimensions of equity: recognitional, reparative, procedural, and distributive equity.

  • Recognitional equity acknowledges past policies and discrimination that have contributed to current disparities.
  • Reparative equity (PDF) includes an intent to explicitly benefit a specific group.
  • Procedural equity (PDF) entails a commitment to community members for meaningful, transparent public engagement and involvement in decision-making processes.
  • Distributive equity requires that the benefits and harms from projects or policies are distributed fairly.

Read the full article about addressing extreme heat by Jorge Morales-Burnett and Rebecca Marx at Urban Institute.