SUMMER 2020 was one for the record books, and not just because of COVID-19. Temperatures in June, July, and August made last summer the hottest on record in Massachusetts. Throughout a global pandemic that has now caused almost 600,000 US deaths and over 3 million worldwide, the climate crisis rages on, and its impacts – specifically more heat waves and extreme heat – have exacerbated health issues for people most vulnerable to COVID-19 while starkly exposing longstanding inequities in systems of health care, housing, education, and employment.
With memories of last summer’s heat emergencies still fresh, our two organizations are collaborating on the first-ever regional “Heat Preparedness Week” to elevate the issue of rising temperatures and extreme heat and educate the public about how to be safe beforeand during summer heat waves. Community-centered planning and decision-making now – by governments, non-profits, planning agencies, community-based organizations, and others – will lay a foundation for helping the most vulnerable through another sweltering season.
As rates of coronavirus vaccinations increase, people are looking forward to summer activities that were limited or unavailable last year. However, warmer weather also brings increased risk for heat exhaustion, heat stroke, exacerbation of cardiovascular diseases, and more. Known as the “silent storm” of climate change, extreme heat causes more deaths in the US than all other weather-related issues combined. New England has the infrastructure in place to heat our homes in the winter and put salt on our roads during blizzards. Yet, measures to manage and prevent health issues that residents face in summer are not commonly incorporated into government function or public awareness.
There is a great need to be intentional in how we design and implement programs and policies that ease burdens for Massachusetts residents most vulnerable to extreme heat impacts, such as those in poorly insulated homes, the elderly, and those unable to afford cooling devices, especially as COVID lingers and the future brings increasing temperatures.
The combination of oppressive heat waves and an unrelenting public health crisis last summer illuminated weaknesses in our systems for managing the increasing incidence of extreme heat. With social distancing protocols in place, for example, community cooling centers – a common remedy in densely populated neighborhoods – were difficult or impossible to utilize. In response, our organizations partnered with the Barr Foundation last summer to quickly get funding out to communities hardest hit by COVID.
MAPC and MyRWA released an opportunity for $500,000 in available funding to municipalities and community-based organizations in seven eligible cities: Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Lynn, Lawrence, and Revere. The resulting collaborations between municipalities and community partners yielded the most exciting outcomes. Community-based organizations were critical in this program’s success, bearing truth to “those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” We were excited to see both innovative short-term responses as well as longer-term measures.
For example, a pre-existing strong partnership between the city of Chelsea and non-profit GreenRoots facilitated quick assessment of community needs and design of solutions. Together, they installed seven hydration stations close to community services and COVID testing sites throughout Chelsea.
In Brockton, a collaborative effort among new partners – Self Help, Inc., Communities Responding to Extreme Weather, and Authentic Caribbean Foundation – distributed air conditioning units, fans, and utility assistance to the large Caribbean population and others in Brockton most in need.
By September, we had funded a variety of heat-relief projects – ranging from shade tree planting in Lawrence to the purchase and distribution of box fans and air conditioning units in Everett and Boston and a heat emergency hotel shelter in Revere. We are hopeful that the new and deepened pathways for collaboration will become institutionalized into community responses to extreme heat – supporting long-term resilience.
Eager to build on the successes and lessons learned last year, MAPC and MyRWA will soon roll out the next round of COVID-Safe Cooling Strategies funding to those seven communities, with grant awards anticipated in June. In addition, we have developed resources for all communities and launched several other projects to address the impacts of rising temperatures and extreme heat, including the state-funded “Building Resilience to Climate-Driven Heat in Metro Boston” and “Wicked Hot Mystic” projects.
That said, there is much more to do. Climate change is here, and people are suffering. Just as staying warm in the winter is a recognized human right, so too should be staying cool in the summer. Climate resilience – especially for those experiencing extreme weather first and worst – should be a core government function, like schools and roads. Now is the time for new legislation, regulations, investments, policies, and programs to unlock the multiple benefits of climate resilience, from improved public health to climate-smart spaces, as we ready the region for increasingly hot days to come.
Rebecca Davis is deputy director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and Melanie Gárate is the climate resiliency project manager for the Mystic River Watershed Association.