The city of Phoenix is preparing for a natural disaster, albeit one that is largely invisible: rising temperatures.
“We sometimes call heat a silent killer or a silent storm because people just don't pay attention to it,” says Lisa Jones, director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for the Arizona capital city. “But heat is an absolute hazard.”
More than 155 people in the area died from heat-related illness in 2017 — twice as many deaths as Hurricane Harvey caused.
Those numbers could get worse in the coming years. By 2050, Phoenix will spend close to 150 days a year combatting temperatures of 105℉. That dangerous mixture of heat and humidity is enough to be classified as a “danger day” by the National Weather Service, when heat strokes and other heat-related incidences spike.
By 2100, Phoenix will have summers that rival Kuwait’s — the hottest inhabited place on earth where average summer temperatures rise to 114℉, just 4 degrees below the temperature at which human skin starts to get a first degree burn.
To combat the heat, Phoenix received $100,000 from the Bloomberg Philanthropies' 2018 Mayors Challenge to develop a plan it’s dubbed “HeatReady.” As part of the plan, the city has focused on better coordination of its network of cooling centers as well as the implementation of a misting bus shelter for transit commuters.
Phoenix is competing against 35 other cities who’ve also entered the Mayors Challenge, which asks cities to propose solutions to their most pressing challenges. The winning city, which will be announced in October, will receive $5 million.
“When we're thinking about climate change and heat, there are very few links that we understand better than this one,” says David Hondula, a climatologist at Arizona State University. “It requires a shift in how we're thinking about the hazard.”
Even if it loses, Phoenix’s efforts could set a precedent for other cities around the world. Currently 354 major cities around the world experience average summer temperatures in excess of 95℉; by 2050 that number will rise to 970. But the health effects of heatwaves are already being felt around the world. This summer over 20,000 people were hospitalized in Japan due to blistering temperatures, with 65 dying as a result. In Seoul, 27 people died during a two-week heatwave where temperatures hit 95 degrees. And in Montreal, police officers and firemen went door to door to check on elderly residents during a weeklong heatwave that killed more than 70 people.
This segment originally aired August 28, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.