Researchers Call for Attention to ‘Heat Governance’ to Protect Those Most at Risk from Extreme Heat

V. Kelly Turner and coauthors outline necessary components of an equitable strategy to address extreme heat

October 5, 2021

Extreme heat events—such as the road-buckling, record-smashing temperatures seen throughout the West this past summer—are becoming more deadly and common in a rapidly changing climate. A new article in Nature identifies a key barrier to protecting communities from this threat: Unlike with fires or floods, no single government body is responsible for managing extreme heat. As a result, efforts to reduce the dire effects of heat waves are scattered and less effective than they could be with more dedicated resources and coordination.

A team including V. Kelly Turner, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, as well as Ladd Keith of the University of Arizona, Sara Meerow and Dave Hondula of Arizona State University, and James C. Arnott of the Aspen Global Change Institute propose a set of guiding principles for researchers and government, nonprofit and private sector decision-makers to take real action in the face of this multifaceted threat.

“Protecting people from extreme heat will require a coordinated and well-researched government approach,” said V. Kelly Turner. “This is especially crucial for advancing equity and reducing the disproportionate effect heat has on people of color and low-income communities.”

The authors lay out six key actions that decision makers and researchers must take to address this problem: 

  • Advance heat equity: Communities of color and low income communities are disproportionately severely impacted by extreme heat. To address heat through an equity lens, researchers must explore how different factors compound to increase heat vulnerability, and “decision makers must engage with their communities to understand who heat affects most, why and how best to deal with it,” the authors state.
  • Mitigate heat: From urban greening to improved airflow in cities, strategies to reduce temperatures on hot days abound. But tactics that work in one region may not work in another, and trade-offs (such as increased water use) may be prohibitive. Research on the effectiveness, interactions, and overall effects of these strategies is necessary—not to mention clarity on where interventions are most desperately needed.  
  • Manage risks: Governments need to understand the full range of strategies for reducing the risk posed by heat waves—and even by hot temperatures below warning levels. Researchers must examine the effectiveness and tradeoffs of different heat management strategies, as well as the differing needs of those without reliable access to shelter and transportation. 
  • Develop metrics: Heat and its effects are measured differently by different groups. While one agency might measure the average temperature of a region, another might look at the number of very hot days. Decision makers must understand and use a variety of different metrics, listening to advice from researchers on which metrics are appropriate for which purposes. 
  • Coordinate initiatives: Effective management of extreme heat will require a clear structure of governance. Researchers can help governments to determine the most effective methods for governing heat management, and governments can work together to integrate and coordinate plans and policies for different jurisdictions within each region.  
  • Build heat institutions: National programs and institutions dedicated to heat management can have immediate benefits. National governments can support smaller-scale actions, particularly by equipping communities with needed resources,  providing insight from other domains of governance (such as pollution and flood management) and sharing information and strategies among agencies and nations.

Throughout the study, the authors emphasize the need for coordinated, strategic and equity-focused action to manage extreme heat. Highlighting the areas where further research is needed, they outline actions that governments can take to form an effective system for heat management.

To learn more about the effects and management of extreme heat, read recent research on labor and education implications and check out Dr. Turner’s recent op-ed on cooling cities.