ProJo Opinion | Disparate Impacts of Extreme Heat in Our City

As we write this, we are now on day 6 of heat exceeding 90 degrees in Providence. If you can relax in air-conditioned spaces or get to our beautiful Rhode Island beaches, you are among the lucky ones. Not everyone enjoys those options.

For many, heat like this can cause severe discomfort and exacerbate illness. Heat stroke – when the body’s cooling mechanism simply fails in the face of temperatures like those we are seeing – can kill.

The CDC notes that older adults are especially vulnerable, as their bodies cannot adjust to temperature changes as fast as young people. The elderly are also more likely to be in poor health, less mobile and more isolated, and living on fixed incomes. Air conditioning may be something they simply cannot afford.

According to the US Climate Change Science Program, young children can be more susceptible to extreme heat as they have more rapid breathing rates relative to body size, spend more time outdoors, and their respiratory systems are still under development. This research also shows increased likelihood of aggravated asthma and other lung diseases caused by ozone air pollution and smog, which usually increases during heat waves.

Those with physical and cognitive disabilities may be unable to take the necessary steps to stay cool in sweltering temperatures. People without housing are obviously at serious risk when we see temperatures like this.

One of the key findings of last year’s Providence Resilience Partnership examination of flooding risk in the city is that climate change impacts affect different areas of the city differently. It is true of flooding and, as has been amply demonstrated this past week, very much true of extreme heat.

Throughout our city, we have “heat islands” – places where asphalt, buildings, and other hard surfaces absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat, driving temperatures much higher. There is no natural landscape to buffer the effect of the temperature and little tree cover. These heat islands are often in neighborhoods where inflation is already forcing hard choices about food, shelter, and everyday necessities. The cost of air conditioning may be beyond residents’ reach, and the cost to health much higher.

Heat, like all other severe weather impacts of a changing climate, is experienced differently, depending on your income level and where you live in our city.

Climate threats may come in the form of extreme heat and precipitation, sea level rise and more violent storms – and not only are we not ready as a city, but some of our citizens are much more vulnerable than others.

That is why Providence needs to do a comprehensive assessment of the city’s vulnerability to climate impacts and develop a climate resilience roadmap that assures all our citizens can deal with and recover from, the inevitable severe weather we now face.

The Providence Resilience Partnership is working to create Climate Ready Providence, a bold plan to gather data to understand our climate vulnerability in every part of the city, then collaboratively create resilience strategies that address the needs of all our residents. This is not going away. We need to act now to address what will be happening more and more frequently in coming years. Please join us.

Buff Chace of Cornish Associates, chairs the Providence Resilience Partnership and Michele Jalbert serves as Executive Director. The organization brings together businesses, academic institutions, nonprofits, civic/community groups and residents across Providence to address the risks of severe weather and other impacts of climate change.