On July 16, 2006, a sticky, searing air mass parked itself over Southern California and stayed there for almost two weeks, creating one of the worst heat waves in Los Angeles’s history. For ten days, most parts of L.A. were dangerously hot, including record-high overnight lows, making it physiologically impossible to cool down without a window AC unit trained with laser precision onto your bed. On the evening that Woodland Hills, the hottest pocket of the city, hit 119 degrees, shattering L.A. County’s all-time-high temperature record, I gave up and slept on the floor of my Hollywood apartment, a frozen washcloth molded to my forehead.
Last Sunday, that record was broken when the same weather station in Woodland Hills clocked in at 121 degrees. The changed climate was not, as predicted, a few decades in the future: It was here, with nearly two decades of advance notice. The wildfires in California — particularly the ones ignited by gender-reveal parties — will snag all the headlines this summer, but the state’s record-breaking heat will end up being more deadly. Extreme heat kills more Americans each year than any other weather-related disaster combined — the number of heat-related deaths from the 2006 heat wave was later determined to be three times what coroners had reported — and, as with the steamy heat that slow-rolled through L.A. 14 years ago, it is often an unheeded warning.
In 2010, the city of Los Angeles commissioned one of the most comprehensive local assessments of how heat would transform the region. For five years, UCLA’s climate-science center drew up fine-grain climate-change projections for the city, accounting for L.A.’s varied topography and microclimates almost down to the neighborhood level. When published in 2015, alongside a dire plea for the city to decrease carbon emissions, one piece of the report’s data generated jaw-dropping headlines: In Downtown, the number of days per year in which temperatures would climb higher than 95 degrees — considered “dangerous” heat — would nearly triple by 2050. By that time, L.A. had a new mayor, Eric Garcetti, who led a contingent of his peers promising to double down on climate action when the U.S. left the Paris Agreement. Yet it took the city several more years to produce a report addressing the threat of heat. This summer, the Los Angeles Urban Cooling Collaborative released its own findings — during another heat wave rivaling the 2006 one in its scope and deadliness. “We found that roughly one in four lives currently lost during heat waves could be saved, largely in low-income communities and communities of color,” reads the report, “Rx for Hot Cities,” which identifies 18 heat-vulnerable “districts” in L.A. County. The recommendations, which are ambitious, focus on lowering temperatures at the city scale by applying reflective coatings to surfaces like streets and roofs and ramping up tree-planting efforts. Trees, in particular, are an incredibly effective strategy for lowering temperatures by combating urban-heat-island effect, but like other long-term, large-scale infrastructural adaptations, it will take years, if not decades, to see results.
If L.A.’s goal is to save lives in low-income communities and communities of color, it would be faster and easier simply to give people emergency access to air-conditioning. Only about 68 percent of L.A. households have AC, says George Ban-Weiss, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC and the co-author of a recent study looking at how heat waves affect L.A.’s most vulnerable residents. Some homes have traditionally depended on microclimates that used to hold temperatures down; if you’ve lived near the ocean all your life — which is, largely, the wealthier, whiter part of the city — there were historically so few days of extreme heat per year that it’s possible you didn’t bother to install an air conditioner. But, of course, money is most of the reason here. About 37 percent of households citywide are below the poverty line. In some neighborhoods like South L.A., where the rate of poverty is almost double the city average, the number of households with AC falls to 41 percent. “From a public-health perspective, if the goal is to reduce the impact of extreme heat on morbidity and mortality, the quickest way is to give people access to AC in their homes or a cooling center,” says Ban-Weiss. This could also ensure that people who are at risk of contracting COVID-19 — the same people who are more susceptible to extreme heat — are able to stay home.
Of course, running all those air conditioners is not good for the long term. The fossil fuels that are burned to run them are the very things making it hotter outside. “A lot of households don’t have air-conditioning, but the goal isn’t to get them all on AC — you’ve seen the Flex Alerts where they’ve been asking people to cut back,” says Bryn Lindblad, deputy director of the nonprofit Climate Resolve, a co-author of “Rx for Hot Cities.” “We need to cool down the city so we don’t have to run AC so much.” Plus, without major utilities reform, just acquiring an AC unit isn’t a panacea, she says. “We hear from low-income families that have been gifted it or they buy it, but they can’t afford to run it. Their homes are still leaking in hot air. They’re putting tape around windows because of such bad weatherization.” Additionally, the L.A. neighborhoods that most lack cooling tree cover are also the least likely to have air-conditioning. However, as Ban-Weiss argues, they can’t wait for shade canopies to grow. “Adopting heat-mitigation strategies such as increasing vegetative cover and reflective roofs can play an important role in reducing temperatures in cities,” he says. “But those solutions are taking time to roll out. We are facing increases in extreme heat now, and the vulnerable need help.”
Providing L.A.’s most vulnerable households with air conditioners — as New York City did during the pandemic, giving away some 74,000 of them — is just one idea on the table as L.A. County develops a heat action plan, says Elizabeth Rhoades, director of L.A. County health department’s climate-change and sustainability program. Last month, the county’s board of supervisors voted to move forward on crafting such a plan — as directed by the county’s ambitious sustainability agenda — which would not just improve cooling-center access but also designate bathrooms, showers, and kitchens for public use in emergencies. Climate Resolve is currently piloting one “resilience hub” in Boyle Heights, and although widespread access to such amenities will come too late for this summer, it will better prepare the region for next year.
The loss of L.A.’s informal cooling centers — malls, office towers, libraries, movie theaters, splash pads — under social-distancing guidelines is what’s making this summer’s heat waves exceptionally challenging. But the availability of official cooling centers was also inexplicably reduced during the pandemic. The city of L.A. — home to 4 million people — opened only five cooling centers with a combined capacity of 200 people. On Sunday, after a week of public pleas from homeless service providers, Los Angeles City Councilmember Herb Wesson reopened a South L.A. mall as a sixth cooling center. But at 8 p.m. on Sunday, when all emergency facilities closed, temperatures remained over 100 degrees in most parts of the city, bringing no respite for those who had to once again face the elements, including 40,000 unsheltered Angelenos living in tents, improvised structures, or vehicles who clustered around the city’s freeway overpasses, the only shade structures provided by the city.
Advocates stepped in to fill the gaps in emergency efforts. At dusk at a camp in Koreatown that has grown three times in size since the start of the pandemic, mutual-aid groups handed out cold water bottles with cores of ice frozen at the center. Volunteers took to social media to exchange instructions for making battery-powered swamp coolers out of Styrofoam ice chests. Protesters gathered outside Garcetti’s house demanding that city buildings be opened to give homeless residents access to air-conditioning and drinking fountains.
As I went to bed that night, all I could think about were the thousands of still-empty rooms that L.A.’s mayor might, in some alternate timeline, have already commandeered to provide shelter for 15,000 unhoused Angelenos. I thought about hundreds of HVAC systems running at full capacity to chill cavernous, vacant hotel ballrooms. I thought of the climate-controlled indoor city that is L.A.’s Convention Center, which at one point was prepared to welcome thousands of COVID-19 patients, with neat grids of hospital beds stationed six feet apart, less than a mile from Skid Row.
Early Monday morning, ash from the wildfires started to fall across the city like snow flurries, compounding the public-health threat into triple crises of COVID-19, extreme heat, and toxic air pollution. It was the United Nations’ International Day of Clean Air, and with Garcetti now the chair of a global climate-action consortium, the city of L.A.’s social-media accounts eagerly pushed out videos heralding how L.A. is reducing emissions while “adapting to the needs of Angelenos during times of crisis.”