How the White House plans to combat the ‘silent killer’ of rising heat levels

2021 had one of the hottest summers on record, with July being the hottest single month recorded. Extreme heat is expected to worsen with climate change. The Biden administration announced a plan Monday that would develop new workplace standards for Americans who work outdoors, prioritizing heat-related inspections. William Brangham and Gina McCarthy, White House national climate adviser, discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is an important week for the president's efforts to tackle climate change, a central pledge of his campaign.

    Tomorrow, the president will further his call for other nations to act. And Democrats are trying to walk a careful line in order to pass major legislation as part of a much larger bill.

    But, today, the Biden administration focused on the problem of extreme heat.

    As William Brangham tells us, it aims to help Americans and workplaces better adapt to new realities.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, this was one of the hottest summers ever on record.

    July was the hottest single month since records have been kept. And brutal streaks of triple-digit temperatures claimed hundreds of lives this year. Extreme heat is only expected to get worse with climate change. The Biden administration today announced a plan to develop new workplace standards for people who work outside.

    The Labor Department would prioritize heat-related inspections, and more funding would be made available for cooling centers and for home air conditioning.

    Gina McCarthy is the White House national climate adviser, and she joins me from the White House.

    Ms. McCarthy, so good to you have back on the "NewsHour."

    This move is obviously part of this growing recognition that heat waves are becoming more intense, they're lasting longer, and they're more frequent.

    Could you tell a little bit more about what the administration's plans are?

  • Gina McCarthy, White House National Climate Adviser:

    This extreme heat challenge is the silent killer. It is one of the biggest challenges that we face in climate.

    And yet people don't recognize it until it's too late. So, we need to start preparing. And what this plan is, is a multiagency effort to make sure that we're preventing impacts from heat stress. We're recognizing that they're happening, and it's getting hotter and hotter. So the time is now for us to invest.

    First of all, you mentioned that the Department of Labor is going after an ability to actually establish a heat standard. We need our workers to be protected, whether they're the ones indoors or they're the outdoor laborers, like our ag community and our construction community.

    And they're also — in advance of having that completed, they're going to look at their whole response to compliance and enforcement, so that they can begin to be more aware of this challenge and start developing the kind of education for industry and the kind of response that they can take under the existing law.

    We're also looking at programs like LIHEAP, which many know are actually focused on low-income energy assistance. And those programs now have been basically providing more flexibility from the federal government about how states use those dollars. And we're doing it because it's now the time to recognize that maybe seniors would benefit most from being able to have access to an air conditioner.

    So we want to provide really new ideas and ways that we can work with states and local governments, including, as you mentioned, cooling centers in our schools. But we have a breadth of agencies working on this, including even the Department of Homeland Security, who's putting out a challenge looking to actually ask people to tell them what they and other agencies across the federal government can do to protect our communities moving forward from this really silent, but deadly killer.

  • William Brangham:

    As you well know, addressing these types of heat deaths require a whole slew of additional strategies, how we build cities, how we build homes, how we strengthen the electrical grid.

    We know that Hurricane Ida killed more people because of lack of power to run their air conditioners than the flooding did. Do you think this plan does enough to address this silent killer that you're describing?

  • Gina McCarthy:

    Not in and of itself. It is an effort to make sure that we're working with states and communities diligently on the areas in which we have direct funding to offer right away and strategies that we know the federal government can initiate.

    But, as you know, President Biden has been working with Congress to actually provide significant resources to make our future more resilient. We're talking about resilient infrastructure.

    Part of this is about that effort. It's about looking at our cities, where we know we have heat stress, and capturing of that heat in these impervious surfaces, that impacts our urban communities the most. We're talking about those most impacted by heat stress being the Black and brown community, the indigenous communities, our outdoor workers.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to pivot to climate change more broadly.

    We know President Biden is going to the U.N. He's urging other world leaders to step up their greenhouse gas emission cuts. But the president's own agenda on climate is still here — in flux here in Washington. And a good deal of that climate agenda is being written by a senator with very strong ties politically and financially to the fossil fuel industry.

    How does that formula create the bold agenda that you're talking about?

  • Gina McCarthy:

    Well, I think the president's agenda is actually quite clear.

    He has already articulated on day one that he's rejoining Paris, and we established a commitment internationally that's a strong commitment to get half to 52 percent of our emissions down by 2030. We're talking about achieving net zero by 2050.

    But this has to be a multifaceted strategy. We know we need resources. We know we need investment. They're not the only tools we have in our toolbox, but they will be the most — the best way for us to accelerate in this most important decade.

    Now, Senator Manchin has raised concerns. Many others in Congress have as well. But we have been working all along with the senator as a strong partner, trying new ideas, looking at being flexible, looking to get where we both know we need to be, which is towards a clean energy future, and one that recognizes the impacts of climate, and the fact that, if we don't invest now, we are risking our lives, our health, and the future of our kids.

    And if we invest now, for every dollar we invest, we're going to save $6 in future expenses. So, this is going to be an important step forward. But it by no means is confining the president's aggressive agenda, nor is it going to dictate our ability to succeed.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, that's White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy.

    Thank you very much for being here.

  • Gina McCarthy:

    Thank you.

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