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Heatwaves are becoming more common. Here’s how the U.S. must plan for them

Extreme heat and drought are baking the Western U.S. and Canada again this week, following hundreds of heat-related deaths in the Pacific Northwest last week. Record-breaking temperatures are expected to return to California over the weekend, including in the San Joaquin Valley. William Brangham, currently reporting from the city of Visalia, joins Judy Woodruff with the latest on the heat.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Extreme heat and drought are baking the Western United States and Canada again this week, following hundreds of heat-related deaths in the Pacific Northwest last week.

    Record-breaking temperatures are expected to return to California over the weekend, including in the San Joaquin Valley, which is where William Brangham is currently reporting.

    And he joins me now from the city of Visalia, where, William, you were telling us it's something like 109 degrees, another heat wave coming. Tell us what it's like. And are officials there prepared?

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, the technical term is, it's unbelievably hot out here.

    The National Weather Service issued a warning that, starting today through the weekend, there is an extreme heat alert. And they're basically advising people that, if you don't have to be outside, don't. If you do, stay in the shade. Be inside if you can. Drink plenty of water.

    I mean, the concern, as with all of these heat waves is the illness and the death. And, as you mentioned, I think people don't have a real appreciation of how much heat waves cause death all over the world. So, it's the leading weather-related killer when it comes to climate events.

    The Pacific Northwest heat wave which we just had that you mentioned killed hundreds of people. Two years ago, in Europe, many people may not remember, tens of thousands of people died in a heat wave there, same thing back in 2003.

    And so this is the ongoing concern, that we see more of these events, that more and more people will lose their lives. And it's not like the suffering is spread equally. The elderly, people with certain medical conditions are most likely to die, the homeless, and people who can't choose to work inside, people who don't have adequate housing and people who can't afford to pay the high cost of running their electricity and their air conditioning day after day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, William, we know that there is a considerable amount of research being done about the role that climate change is playing in all this.

    What is known at this point about the connection between the heat and climate change?

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    This whole field of research is known as attribution science. How much can you attribute a given event to something like climate change? And scientists are getting better and better at zeroing in on which events are really driven or impacted heavily by climate change.

    There was a study just out last week from a European agency that said that the Pacific Northwest heat wave that we all just experienced was almost certainly driven in large part by climate change, that it could not have happened and been as bad without climate change.

    June, we know, was the hottest June that North America has ever seen in record. Over the last three years, the Earth has seen the — 19 of the warmest years on record.

    And so this is what the climate models have always predicted, that climate change keeps going up as we pump more in oil and gas and coal into the atmosphere. Temperatures will go up, and these extreme events will go up.

    These heat waves, the research is showing that they're more frequent than, they are starting earlier, and they are lasting longer. So it is a genuine concern.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, William, given all of this, what can local officials, what can residents do to stay safe?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, some of the things that we talked about before, go to cooling centers like the one that I'm standing in front of here in Visalia.

    The larger issue is, of course, we need to cut our emissions to stop the temperature of the planet going up. But on a more localized level, states and cities and counties, there's good research that showing that you can design cities better. You can build buildings smarter, using better materials, more reflective surfaces. You can plant more trees that offer a lot of shade. Those things are all crucial.

    One of the most important things that researchers I have talked to have said is that strengthening our electrical grid infrastructure is key, because, right now, in Visalia, there's maybe 100,000 people standing around me, living around me who are protected by the electricity that is fueling their air conditioners.

    If we had a massive blackout in the middle of one of these massive heat waves, and, all of a sudden, that is hundreds of thousands of people that would no longer have the protection of that air conditioning. And you could see a real tragic event occur. That's one of the big fears, that, as these heat waves become more common, big stresses on the electrical grid can cause real serious problems.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is such a big story. It's such a serious concern.

    William Brangham, thank you. And please stay safe. We hope everyone's able to stay safe. Thanks.

  • William Brangham:

    Thanks, Judy.

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