Extreme weather has become a part of everyday life. Seventy-eight percent of adults in the United States have reported being personally affected by extreme weather events in recent years. Whether it’s hurricanes like Hurricane Fiona and Ian that devastated Puerto Rico and Florida, respectively, or the flooding in Pakistan, human-induced climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent and intense, in the United States and around the world. While many communities may finally be feeling some relief from the oppressive heat that defined the summer, there seems to be no relief from extreme weather. We may not be feeling the heat anymore, but longer, hotter summers are inevitable, and that means more dangerous summers.
The danger isn’t always as apparent. As climate change continues to increase the average global temperature, it causes more frequent and extreme sudden-onset disasters, such as floods and wildfires. However, extreme heat is often considered a slow-onset event because it lacks the rapid, visible, physically destructive element of other climate disasters and makes it a difficult risk for people to understand.
Even still, extreme heat disrupts and threatens many aspects of society, causing deadly consequences in some instances. The summer of 2021 was the hottest summer on record since 1936, so, despite heat being less visible, the impacts are becoming hard to ignore. More frequent and intense extreme heat events can increase illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat strokes, that could lead to death and especially so among already vulnerable populations, which include Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the United States and the populations of developing countries.
We have a collective responsibility to respond to extreme heat (and any other climate-related disaster) in an equitable and just manner.
As extreme heat continues to upheave lives and livelihoods, people may be forcibly displaced or decide migration1 is the best form of adaptation for their family’s safety and wellbeing. Irreversible climate damage has already been done and the United States is responsible for the most cumulative greenhouse gas emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, despite only accounting for about 5 percent of the global population. Because of this, we have a collective responsibility to respond to extreme heat (and any other climate-related disaster) in an equitable and just manner.
Extreme heat is a growing problem, and its impacts aren’t felt equally.
Extreme heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is defined broadly as “summertime temperatures that are much hotter and/or more humid than average for a location.” This relatively innocuous definition masks the true severity of this growing problem for communities across the globe. Extreme heat is responsible for more deaths globally than any other climate disaster, and is the leading weather-related cause of death in the United States. There are estimated to be more than 1,300 deaths per year in the United States due to extreme heat, even though some “heat-related” deaths may not be reported as such because many official records fail to attribute deaths to occurrences of hot temperatures and heat waves.
The challenge with protecting against extreme heat is that its effects—more than any other climate disaster—extend beyond disrupting ecosystems and the built environment and strike directly at the human body. Heat-related stress can cause damage to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and, as mentioned, often leads to death. The effects of extreme heat have also been found to extend beyond the physiological to the psychological, impacting mental health and even leading to increased rates of suicide.
The challenge with protecting against extreme heat is that its effects—more than any other climate disaster—extend beyond disrupting ecosystems and the built environment and strike directly at the human body.
A historic heatwave in the Pacific Northwest resulted in dangerous temperatures, which was made 150 times more likely because of climate change. It killed nearly 200 people in Oregon and Washington. July of this year was also the third hottest July in 128 years in the United States. Globally, India and Pakistan sweltered under an unprecedented heat wave earlier this year, which was also made thirty times more likely because of climate change. The heatwave caused forest fires, power blackouts, agricultural disruption, and resulted in ninety recorded deaths, which is likely an undercount. In Britain, there have been all-time record temperatures, while wildfires have threatened Spain and France.
In the United States, low-income neighborhoods are more likely to be hotter than their wealthier counterparts. Heat islands, present in many American cities, create a patchwork of neighborhoods that are notably hotter than others and are often areas that people of color call home.
When it comes to health risks, the people who are most sensitive to the effects of heat are seniors, children, those with preexisting health conditions, and, notably, those without access to air conditioning. Unequal access to air conditioning and underlying racial and health disparities (as noticed during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic) then serve to compound the effects of extreme heat on populations that are already socially and physically vulnerable. The Oregon state legislature had to pass a bill giving tenants the right to have air conditioning units in their apartments—a sign of the times in a region that previously had limited air conditioning as a result of its historically temperate climate.
These disparities across the United States mirror even greater gaps between the United States and developing countries. Extreme temperatures in Latin America may have resulted in close to 1 million deaths over a thirteen-year period. Developing countries are likely to be two to five times more exposed to heat waves than richer countries by the 2060s. So we can see that climate change isn’t felt equally across the globe, including extreme heat, which only exacerbates pre-existing poverty and inequalities.
Extreme heat is also impacting people in other aspects of their life. It has made working conditions dangerous for outdoor workers, and there are no national heat safety standards in the United States. While the Biden administration has directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue a new rule to protect workers from heat, it takes OSHA an average of seven years to write new safety standards. There is also fierce opposition from industry groups concerned that it would drive business costs up; these are the same actors that have contributed so disproportionately to climate change. But heat exposure is already costing human lives: an average of forty U.S. workers are killed annually due to heat exposure, and those figures are likely to be a vast underestimate due to underreporting. Extreme heat is especially dangerous for farm and construction workers, who have the highest heat-related fatality rates. Black and Brown workers are disproportionately represented in heat-related deaths, and in general, low-income earners and workers of color are at the forefront of feeling the impacts of extreme heat through job-related heat exposure.
These increased temperatures are likely to change the fabric of our environment, to impact the health of our communities, and threaten our economic livelihoods. A 2021 survey of 2,000 U.S. residents found that almost half of the respondents were considering natural disasters and extreme temperatures when making decisions about where to live and whether or not to relocate. What the survey doesn’t account for, however, is the fact that mobility itself is often a reflection of relative wealth, and as some move, many others will be left behind. Younger, wealthier residents are more likely to move as climate threats loom, while older, less-resourced residents risk becoming trapped in harm’s way, absent support from the government.
We will begin to see movement of folks to cooler, more tolerable areas (voluntarily or otherwise), so we should be prepared to support climate migrants, both internal migrants and those that cross borders, that are adversely affected by extreme heat and create policies that recognize those conditions.
Climate change is a major driver of migration, and extreme heat is a threat to the habitability of many areas across the globe.
The Sixth National Climate Risk Assessment from the First Street Foundation expects that, by 2053, more than 1,000 US counties (home to 107.6 million people) will experience temperatures above 125°F. And it’s not just in the United States: extreme hot zones that create near-unlivable conditions, like in parts of the Sahara, are estimated to grow from less than 1 percent now to 19 percent by 2070. And beyond the dangers posed by these temperatures on their own, they are likely to also result in greater frequencies of disruptive events such as droughts and wildfires worldwide.
The number of individuals at risk of being displaced from their homes because of climate change could substantially increase, making it into a significant driver of migration. While climate change is not the sole driver of why people are forced to or choose to migrate—reasons for migration are diverse and interwoven with economic, social and security factors—changing weather has already had an impact on migration: since 2008, an annual average of 25.3 million people have been forcibly displaced by weather-related sudden-onset disasters each year. However, the figure doesn’t account for those who move due to slow-onset climate effects. The effects of slow-onset processes exacerbate global inequalities and put a further strain on vulnerable populations, limiting their access to basic human needs, such as food and water, and driving people to move. In a clear example of sudden and slow-onset events, there was an effort to relocate an entire Louisiana town in 2017 because of its vulnerability to recurring threat of disasters and sea-level rise.
One of the climatic drivers is rising temperatures, which experts are only just beginning to understand. As average global temperatures increase, the habitability—conditions capable of sustaining well-being—and survivability—conditions permissive of the bare minimum for human life—in hot areas of the world are threatened. As extreme hot zones expand, it is more likely to cause heat stress, which negatively impacts daily life and work for millions of people, especially in developing countries. There is a physiological limit to the external heat exposure a person can survive, and extreme heat might make it physiologically impossible to stay in some places, especially if they lack necessary adaptation resources (such as access to air conditioners). Extreme heat is likely to push people to migrate to minimize the effects of rising temperatures on their health and/or to compensate for reduced work hours.
There is a physiological limit to the external heat exposure a person can survive, and extreme heat might make it physiologically impossible to stay in some places, especially if they lack necessary adaptation resources.
Increasing temperatures due to climate change are also likely to result in a greater frequency of the disruptive events that are already displacing people, such as droughts, wildfires, and heatwaves. Droughts are already more severe than they were six decades ago in certain regions, including in the Mediterranean, southern Africa, the southwestern United States, and Mexico. As droughts become more prolonged, agricultural livelihoods are threatened due to widespread crop failures, job loss, decreased water availability, and food insecurity: 40 percent of the world’s population relies on agriculture for their income. Drought is likely to increase migration by at least 200 percent throughout the twenty-first century. Wildfires are already displacing thousands, from California to Southern Europe. Unlike drought, the impacts of wildfires are immediately felt, and, also like droughts, are growing more frequent. Heatwaves will also become increasingly common in the future and will trigger wildfires, becoming a significant driver for migration.
As a top contributor to global warming, the United States has a responsibility to climate migrants and needs to be proactive about creating pathways to protection for those displaced by climate that are grounded in empathy, dignity, and respect.
As we continue to see stronger and more frequent climate impacts, it is important to recognize extreme heat as a serious threat that is a main driver for climate migration. The United States needs to be prepared to handle the inevitability of increased climate migration in an equitable and just way. This is especially true as crossing the U.S.–Mexico border becomes more dangerous. U.S. border security policy is designed to deter migration at heavily guarded urban entry points, so Undocumented migrants with little access to water often spend days on foot in remote areas of the sweltering Sonoran Desert. They face a perilous journey through dangerous terrain: more than 7,800 migrant deaths were reported from 1998 to 2019, and at least 651 people lost their lives in 2021 alone, with many more deaths likely unreported. As temperatures rise and become more extreme, the journey becomes even more dangerous. With no options for a safe and dignified pathway to the United States, people will continue to make these dangerous journeys. As a top contributor to global warming, the United States has a responsibility to climate migrants and needs to be proactive about creating pathways to protection for those displaced by climate that are grounded in empathy, dignity, and respect.
We need to develop a policy infrastructure that supports people moving in the context of climate change, both within the United States and internationally.
When it comes to extreme heat, we lack the policy infrastructure to respond to these events as we do to other climate-related disasters. Recovery efforts in response to disasters are the primary means for government-led climate intervention on the behalf of many populations, and especially the most vulnerable ones. There have been no presidential disaster declarations for extreme heat events other than droughts to date, despite heat being the most deadly weather-related disaster; that’s because federal disaster law excludes heat waves from a list of sixteen events that can trigger disaster aid. There are no national heat safety standards for workplaces in the United States. We haven’t yet seen extreme heat as the focus of relocation or managed retreat plans. In short, there is no national or international policy framework to provide pathways of protections for people that migrate to the United States because of intolerable temperatures (or any other climate-related reason) in their home countries. The United States also has a harrowing history of racial exclusion in their immigration policies. The nation needs to do better for climate migrants, lives depend on it.
A few federal efforts could lay the groundwork for a structural response to extreme heat. In July 2022, the Biden administration announced $2.3 billion in funding for FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program—the largest investment in the program’s history. This funding is intended to help communities increase resilience to heat waves, drought, wildfires, floods, and other disasters. In April 2022, the administration released $385 million to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to help families with their household energy costs, and communities with their summer cooling efforts. It cannot be denied that these more recent federal efforts aimed at mitigating the impacts of extreme heat are critical, but these have primarily focused on cooling efforts, subsidies for utility bills that may have increased as a result of air conditioning usage, and other heat mitigation efforts targeted towards altering the built or natural environment such as planting trees and cool roofs. What we haven’t yet seen are federal efforts anticipating or planning for the movement of people–whether within the country or across borders–as heat makes more areas become intolerable.
What we haven’t yet seen are federal efforts anticipating or planning for the movement of people–whether within the country or across borders–as heat makes more areas become intolerable.
The world has already experienced impacts from extreme heat. It has seen deadly heat waves that have caused devastating fires. Droughts are disrupting agricultural livelihoods and ecosystems. Extreme heat and its impacts have already caused climate migration and will increasingly become a driver of relocation. Adequate adaptation responses to this very serious threat are absolutely critical. The following steps would make for an excellent start to a federal policy infrastructure:
- To unlock more federal resources for communities experiencing extreme heat, Congress should amend the Stafford Act to include heat waves as an event that can trigger disaster aid.
- To provide reprieve for farmworkers, immigrant laborers, and other people who work outside, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should develop equitable national heat safety standards for workplaces in the United States.
- To protect residents from future extreme heat events, state and local governments should consider heat as a factor in hazard mitigation, relocation, or managed retreat plans for people within the United States.
- Currently, there are no legal protections under U.S. or international law for climate migrants. The Biden administration has policy levers that can be used to immediately start addressing this issue, such as strengthening Temporary Protected Status (TPS) by extending designation to countries that are already feeling the slow-onset impacts of climate change. The administration should also work with Congress to establish a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship for people that have had TPS for at least five years.
- The Biden administration and Congress should also work together to develop a policy framework to provide pathways of protections for people that migrate to the United States because of climate-related reasons in their countries of origin.
It is vulnerable communities that are feeling the worst of extreme heat, and we cannot wait until it gets even worse to respond. People’s lives are on the line, and their efforts to keep themselves and their loved ones safe are a struggle in which we are all implicated, and by which we are all affected. Advocates, activists, and policymakers need to begin planning for the movement of people as they craft responses to extreme heat and the climate crisis. As we brace for hotter, more dangerous summers, we need equitable and just solutions to extreme heat.
- While there is no universal legal definition or agreed-upon terminology that describes people who move in the context of climate change, this commentary uses “climate migration” to encompass all of the factors of why, how, and where people move. People may move internally or across borders; they may move temporarily or permanently.