As heat waves intensify, public lands offer solutions
This blog is part of a series on extreme weather. Click here to read about the historic drought impacting the West and how public lands can help.
The heat was so intense in the Pacific Northwest in late June that roads and highways started to buckle. Schools shut down as teachers feared for children’s health. Restaurants, bars and stores closed their doors out of concern for their employees’ well-being.
The heat wave that shattered temperature records and reached peaks of 118 degrees may seem like a freak act of nature. But it could be our new normal. With the Earth warming due to climate change, heat waves have tripled in number since the 1960s. They are also becoming longer and more dangerous.
As the heat sizzles our skin and our sidewalks, it’s hard to believe the Earth could get even hotter. Scientists have warned that if nothing changes, the next decade is likely to rank as the warmest on record. We could see a series of climate change tipping points, including a dramatic shift in the ocean circulation system that could lead to even more extreme weather events.
With the Earth warming due to climate change, heat waves have tripled in number since the 1960’s. They are also becoming longer and more dangerous.
If the scorching temperatures continue, our health, home and safety could be severely compromised. During the first three days of the Pacific Northwest heat wave, over 1,100 people visited emergency rooms in Oregon and Washington for heat-related illnesses—from skin rashes to strokes. In neighboring British Columbia, Canada, at least 486 “sudden and unexpected” deaths were attributed to the sweltering heat.
While we’re all at risk, extreme heat disproportionately impacts low-income and predominantly Black, Brown, Indigenous and immigrant communities. Racist housing policies have left these communities in treeless, concrete neighborhoods that are typically hotter than average. Recent research also shows the risk of dying from heat on the job is three times greater for Latinos than non-Latinos, in part because of the high numbers of Latinos working outdoor jobs in agriculture and construction.
Public lands can help dial down the heat
Sitting under a tree to dipping into a lake are surprisingly efficient ways to cool off on a hot day. Urban parks and green spaces also help to reduce urban heat island effects. That’s why it’s important to preserve public lands and waters—from parks to wilderness areas—and make sure they are accessible to everyone. Historically, access to nature has been inequitable, and even now, one-in-three people in the nation do not live within a half-mile of a quality park.
Moreover, in the long run, public lands can help to tackle the very triggers of climate change.
Over 26 million acres of public lands are currently leased for onshore oil and gas drilling—an area larger than the state of Maine. This fossil fuel development is responsible for a huge chunk of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to almost one-quarter of the U.S.’ total emissions that are warming up the planet.
We can phase out fossil fuel development on these lands and in its place boost responsible renewable energy development that's much better for the environment. While President Biden has taken the first steps by conducting a comprehensive review of oil and gas leasing on public lands and encouraging clean energy projects, we need to move even faster to get it done.
The climate crisis is getting a bit too hot to handle.