What cities can do to prepare for rising temperatures

As global temperatures continue to rise, so do heat-related deaths. Some U.S. cities are feeling the effects of high-temperature emergencies right now, including in Phoenix, Arizona. The city created the first publicly funded office to focus on the problem caused by higher temperatures. David Hondula, director of Phoenix’s Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, joins Stephanie Sy with more.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As temperatures rise, so are heat-related deaths. And some cities in the United States are especially feeling the effects of high temperature emergencies at this moment.

    Stephanie Sy focuses on that part of the story tonight.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, Phoenix is one of those cities. It created the first publicly funded Office of Heat Response and Mitigation to focus on heat-related problems.

    I'm joined by its director, David Hondula, to talk about what cities can do to be better prepared.

    David, thank you for joining the "NewsHour."

    Phoenix is used to months of triple-digit temperatures, but when you see triple digits in the U.K., when you see Austin, Texas, experiencing 40 days already of triple digits this summer, is that shocking, even to you?

    David Hondula, Phoenix Office of Heat Response and Mitigation: Those are shocking numbers.

    And thanks for having us on, Stephanie.

    Shocking numbers and numbers that leave us really concerned about what the public health impacts of this extreme heat will be in communities where the infrastructure has historically not been designed for it. We are fortunate in Phoenix that coping with heat has been part of daily life for decades.

    But the type of extreme heat we're seeing now playing out is not something that communities everywhere have been dealing with. And, unfortunately, we're already seeing reports about a really significant public health toll in those locations.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And we know that even Phoenix is having to adjust its infrastructure to deal with even more extreme heat.

    What are you doing, David, that other cities may need to consider to adjust to the reality of climate change?

  • David Hondula:

    Well, there are so many reasons that people find themselves in trouble related to heat, wind up in the hospital, or worse.

    And we're really trying to look at public health data and come up with a portfolio and implement a portfolio of strategies to help people most in need. We know that the best use of our resources and investments right now is trying to help our unsheltered community, with whom the risk of heat-related death is about 200 to 300 times higher than the rest of the population.

    So that's a group that doesn't always show up very cleanly in administrative records, can fall through the cracks when we're thinking about programming and strategies. But we're so fortunate to have data resources here to understand that is where the problem is concentrated.

    And that's where we're focusing our efforts first and foremost.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Now, Phoenix is what experts call a heat island. All the asphalt, all the urbanization traps the heat. It makes it hotter in Phoenix than in surrounding areas.

    How do other cities prevent themselves from becoming heat islands, as we see temperatures rise around the world?

  • David Hondula:

    Well, you're exactly right that, when we think about beating the heat, it's really a two-part game.

    We certainly need to have strategies in place to keep people safe when it is hot. But we can actually take steps to keep our cities cooler as we move forward, thinking about what the materials are in our city, thinking about how many machines are releasing waste heat in the environment, thinking about what our urban canopy is.

    When we engage in community dialogue here in Phoenix and talk about ways to cool neighborhoods, adding more trees is always at the top of the list. It's a challenge in the Southwest and in our hot cities across the Sunbelt. But we need to be doing more to meet that community need.

    It's hard to find better strategies that can help keep people cool, provide shade and improve quality of life and neighborhoods than adding trees.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And we're at the point where cities like Boston and New York and Chicago are also looking at these heat mitigation efforts.

    President Biden did not make a climate emergency declaration today, which he is under pressure by some to do, given the deadlock in Congress on climate change legislation.

    David, what is your view on what is needed at this point from the federal government?

  • David Hondula:

    Well, certainly encourage you to see some of the new resources and the new explanation of how federal resources can be used in today's announcement.

    Additional creativity, for example, in how LIHEAP funding can be used I think could make a difference in the long term. But the scale of investment that's going to be required, particularly for retrofitting some of our older cities and meeting the incredible community demand and need we see all across the country, I think, requires more thinking than what we saw in today's encouraging news.

    I think a larger scale of investment is needed in Phoenix and elsewhere from local communities, from states and from the federal government as well. And we look forward to continuing to communicate with the federal government on how we can help people in need here in Phoenix and beyond.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Extreme heat kills more people every year than all other natural disasters combined in the U.S.

    Should agencies like FEMA be doing something more now to respond to extreme heat, the way they would respond to other natural disasters, say, a hurricane?

  • David Hondula:

    I think we do need to be thinking about mobilizing more resources.

    We all have pictures in our memory from Hurricane Katrina and how the Superdome was really a focal point for community response, provided as an emergency shelter.

    And I wonder what it would look like for us to do a better job in Phoenix in providing shelter for people living on the streets, about 3,000 people in the city of Phoenix alone living on the street without regular shelter. What would it look like to get every single one of those folks access to cool space?

    What large facilities could be in play? And can FEMA help be a partner in more of an emergency response-style mobilization? I don't know what exactly the right model is yet. But we need to be thinking about bigger solutions than we have right now. The public health data certainly indicate that we're not doing enough.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    David Hondula, the director of the Office of Heat Response and Mitigation in Phoenix, thanks for joining the "NewsHour."

  • David Hondula:

    Thanks, Stephanie.

Listen to this Segment