The heat wave gives WA a lesson in climate adaptation, mitigation

For better or for worse, this heatwave is forcing Washington to recognize and address the impacts of climate change.

Last year’s “heat dome”, while shocking and traumatic for many, was an exceptional event. Earlier this week, King County officials warned that fires near Seattle, once deemed impossible, are a growing threat.

Though it would be rare, projections say this heatwave is anything but.

As the city withstands – or even celebrates – several days of temperatures at or above 90 degrees that could extend into the weekend, these deviations from the region’s mild summers are expected to become part of Seattle’s fabric.

Efforts to adapt and mitigate climate change, however, could backfire if they weren’t fair and equitable.

In Georgetown, a neighborhood south of Seattle literally surrounded by industrial polluters, the effects of extreme heat are often more pronounced. Cars rush across the First Avenue South Bridge, planes fly in and out of King County International Airport, and industrial manufacturers line Duwamish Water, which has been designated a toxic Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Greg Ramirez is a longtime resident of Georgetown, father of two young children and chairman of the board of directors of the Georgetown Community Council. He is worried about the future of his community.

“How are we creating accessible spaces within communities that people can go to during this kind of inclement weather?” He said. “How are we going to make sure we take care of everyone?”

Local and state officials are capitalizing on lessons learned a year ago, but experts have warned that adaptation and mitigation measures are only effective if they also address inequalities and environmental justice.

Scientific studies have found links between air pollution and childhood asthma, while other reports show a correlation between race or socioeconomic status and the effects of extreme heat on health.

Ramirez urged the city of Seattle to create publicly accessible green spaces in its diverse community that allow residents to escape the heat and protect themselves when they can’t afford to do it at home.

Extreme heat also carries additional risks for children, the elderly, and people with physical and mental health problems. People living outside or in low-income housing without air conditioning are also at increased risk of heat sickness and death.

Climate scientists have long predicted that extreme heat will increase in frequency, duration and intensity as humanity continues to burn fossil fuels.

In particular, the Seattle region is seeing an upward trend in heat waves that last longer and cause higher temperatures at night, state climatologist Nick Bond said. Although temperatures this week are high, they are not unprecedented, he said, nor are they as hot as last year.

But even for those who don’t live on the fringes, adapting to the heat is a challenge.

Bond, 68, and his 61-year-old wife took refuge at night in the basement of their home in North Seattle. The couple slept there under a fan for most of the week, as temperatures in the main part of the house reached 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

“From a human health perspective, those warm nights are especially important if people without air conditioning cannot relieve the heat stress that builds up throughout the day,” he said. “That’s when the health problems really emerge.”

Temperatures on Thursday peaked at 93 degrees in the Seattle area, according to the National Weather Service. The heat is expected to pick up on Saturday before staying high, but will cool down into the 1980s on Sunday and into the 1970s early next week.

This, after an exceptionally rainy spring, makes for an irritating year in Washington. But weather events like these can raise public awareness.

Experts think people are making that link between warmer summers and climate change, but it remains to be seen whether the public recognizes the rarity of last year’s heat dome and the increasing frequency of this year’s heat wave.

“I don’t know people are making that distinction,” said Meade Krosby, senior scientist with the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group and director of the university’s Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center.

However, he said, heatwaves like this are an opportunity to take stock of the steps that have been taken to adapt to these changes.

“It’s a really important opportunity to educate the public about climate change and what they can do and what needs to be done to mitigate worsening impacts,” he said.

Heatwaves in particular are obvious examples of climate change because they are experienced by almost everyone at the same time, said Lara Whitely Binder, head of the King County climate preparedness program.

“It is the embodiment of climate change,” he said. The impacts of floods and sea level rise, while damaging, are more often localized and therefore easier to ignore. Waves of heat and smoke from fires, not so much.

“Everyone is talking about how hot it is,” Binder said. “So create this shared memory of how climate change feels and how climate change can affect our communities, our families, our homes, our bodies.”

It is common for people to purchase air conditioners before, during, or right after a heat wave or hot weather. But AC units lead to higher energy consumption and this can lead to the burning of more fossil fuels.

Krosby of UW recommended using natural or less energy-intensive solutions to avoid what she calls “maladjustment,” options that appear to solve the problem but actually make it worse in the long run.

Heat pumps, for example, offer a more efficient alternative to domestic ovens and air conditioning. While they may be more expensive, these alternatives help ensure that energy consumption is kept to a minimum.

The state has been helping residents purchase heat pumps since 2014 through its weathering program. Now, the state wants to extend and expand it, said Becky Kelley, senior climate policy advisor to Governor Jay Inslee.

The state Department of Commerce also helped low-income families purchase air conditioning units and air purifiers for two years, when north winds brought smoke from ongoing fires in Oregon.

“We need to reorganize many programs to address these new realities and make sure we do everything possible to keep residents safe and sound in the face of these threats,” he said.

He said the state Department of Labor and Industries wants to protect outdoor workers by making permanent a set of recently adopted emergency rules that call for mandatory water, shade, breaks, and support if they start showing signs of heat sickness.

But these steps, while helpful, are just the beginning.

Most of the work is to ensure that adaptation and mitigation measures are made accessible to communities that can’t afford them, said Vicky Raya, King County’s program manager for climate equity and community partnerships.

“When we experience these things – this prolonged heatwave – it’s really a catalyst to say, ‘Channel some of these resources into those places,'” Raya said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

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