Summers in Seattle used to be a thing of dreams. The water in and around the city would help keep it breezy even when the sun was strong. As would its many trees—but it seems as though even one of our northernmost cities isn’t immune to climate-driven heat.
Seattle passed its all-time heat record on Monday last week as temperatures reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit. The rest of the West Coast wasn’t doing much better, including British Columbia, Canada, and the Pacific Northwest more broadly. And the results have been deadly: Hundreds have died, likely a direct result of the sweltering heat. Nearly 500 are dead in British Columbia. In Oregon, the death toll is at least 63.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re terrified. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Extreme heat is one of the clearest ways the climate crisis presents itself. It’s also the deadliest form of extreme weather. Unfortunately, the legacy of segregation across the U.S. exposes some neighborhoods more to this dangerous heat than others.
Youth climate activist Jamie Margolin grew up in Seattle. She remembers volunteering with the houseless community through school. As the city reels from a record-breaking heat wave, Margolin is worried about the county’s more than 5,500 unsheltered people. Though the heat made her uncomfortable, she recognizes her privilege. She has a home, cold water, a fridge with ice, and even a car with air conditioning if she needs. Folks living on the street don’t.
“I’m really scared of seeing my home that used to be a safe place becoming just another place you have to hunker down in,” said the co-founder of Zero Hour, a youth-led climate group dedicated to pushing elected officials to act on the crisis. “I didn’t think I’d ever see Seattle in the headlines for extreme heat warnings… There’s nowhere to escape.”
We don’t all experience heat the same. There are unhoused people who are left exposed to the elements. There are incarcerated people stuck in hot cells who can’t advocate for themselves. And there are entire neighborhoods that grow hotter than others when temperatures rise. That’s largely due to racist housing policies that placed white people in one part of town and relegated the rest of us to another. Yes, I’m talking about redlining.
Redlining occurred from the 1930s to the 1960s when the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation graded U.S. city neighborhoods based on race. Those with Black or other residents of color were graded the lowest. White neighborhoods were rated highest. These scores prevented Black families from accessing the loans they needed to buy homes in their neighborhoods, pushing homeownership and wealth generation out of reach while white families received favorable loans. The effects from this racist practice still linger—specifically (but not exclusively) through heat disparities.
“The effects [of redlining] are different, but the effects are nationwide in these kinds of inequities because of these patterns of discrimination,” said LaDale Winling, an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech and co-creator of Mapping Inequality, which digitized historic redlining maps.
Research has found flooding and air pollution may be worse in formerly redlined neighborhoods. A study published in the journal Climate in January 2020 found that formerly redlined communities see, on average, a temperature increase of 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit (2.6 degrees Celsius) above non-redlined neighborhoods. The authors examined 108 urban areas and looked at historical temperature data to make these calculations. That’s largely due to the number of trees in an area as trees offer shade and cooling, but urban design also contributes. Large roadways and buildings made of asphalt and concrete trap and emit heat. These findings don’t even account for the future increase in temperatures cities are projected to face due to global heating.
“Even without climate change in the picture, there is already this large temperature thermal inequity in our cities,” said Jeremy Hoffman, the main author of the study and chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia.“Then, add on top of that longer and stronger heat waves brought on by climate change, so it’s kind of a double whammy for a compounding inequity that is brought on by a global phenomenon amplifying a local phenomenon.”
Ironically enough, Seattle was one of the cities that saw the smallest difference in temperature between neighborhoods, Hoffman said. That could be due to a number of factors, such as the city’s abundant tree canopy cover and its proximity to water. That can’t be said for another city in the Pacific Northwest, though. Portland saw the study’s largest difference in temperature: 12.8 degrees Fahrenheit (7.09 degrees Celsius).
“I can’t help but think about the folks who have to work outside, take public transit, or bear not having air conditioning, living in older homes and living in tree-poor neighborhoods,” Hoffman said. “It’s one of those things that you can’t unlearn once you’ve learned it.”
“We are in the climate crisis now. It’s no longer a future thing.”
Longtime Portland resident Larisa Ikeda has spent the last three years educating herself on the ins and outs of the climate crisis. This newfound climate literacy immediately set off the alarm bells when she realized a heat wave was heading toward her city. It didn’t take her long to realize how ill-equipped the city was. What’s more, county officials didn’t seem alarmed when she reached out to voice her concerns—so she got to organizing.
Within a few short days, Ikeda founded and launched #StayCoolPDX, an information and mutual aid campaign. As a digital designer, Ikeda focused on disseminating critical information—such as cooling center locations—as simply as possible. She didn’t stop at the internet, either. Ikeda took to the streets, handing out printed flyers and even driving one man who was houseless to a cooling center herself.
“Every single person that I talked to—vulnerable or not—was not registering what was gonna happen,” Ikeda said. “That was terrifying to me.”
Staying cool during such severe temperatures is a public health issue. Officials are just beginning to unravel the death toll, but they must also recognize how this crisis collides with other ongoing health crises, such as COVID-19, chronic illnesses, and housing, said Damon Motz-Storey, the healthy climate program director with Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. The people in neighborhoods who experience higher temperatures are often the same people suffering from food deserts, diabetes, asthma, air pollution, and housing vulnerability. And let’s not ignore that these are often Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.
“All of those different factors start stacking up, and what we see is that people who live in those formerly redlined neighborhoods and historically Black parts of Portland are just not equipped with the same tools and resources to weather an extreme event like this,” Motz-Storey said. “This past weekend was a really strong example that we are in the climate crisis now. It’s no longer a future thing, and we need to start taking it really seriously.”
Regions like the Pacific Northwest can prepare in a number of ways. Housing affordability and availability is top of the list, said Aimée Okotie-Oyekan, the environmental climate justice Coordinator for the NAACP Eugene/Springfield. Land use discrimination has made communities of color more vulnerable throughout the region—and heat is only one impact.
Okotie-Oyekan wants to see leaders take proactive steps to be better prepared next time. That means taking the time to understand a community’s vulnerabilities. What language do residents speak? Where do they get their news? What do they need in their go-bag? Part of her work involves building the leaders of tomorrow through a training program focused on teaching Black, Indigenous, and other people of color about emergency management, land use, criminal justice, and housing. The goal is to pass on the torch and create local leaders who understand environmental and climate justice.
Vivian Satterfield, director of strategic partnerships at Verde, an environmental nonprofit focused on creating green spaces equitably throughout Portland’s predominantly Latine Cully neighborhood, sees the power of investing in what she calls “environmental wealth” and building “environmental assets”—i.e. parks and natural restoration projects. After all, this is contributing to the city’s current disparate heat effects. Still, trees and greenery aren’t everything.
Since last year, the group has been helping install heat pumps in mobile homes throughout Cully. Though this energy-efficient technology helps keep homes warm during the winter, it also helps keep them cool during the summer. The residents who’ve already had their systems installed were pleasantly surprised to find that their homes stayed relatively cool during last week’s heat wave, Satterfield said. This is a win in her book, but she recognizes there’s a long road ahead as the climate crisis continues to unravel.
“I have to have hope,” she said. “I have to believe we have all the tools we need to win and to save ourselves, but we really need the partnership of decision makers to enact policies that are in response to the ideas that we have.”
We need this on the city, state, and federal level. That means holding those responsible for the climate crisis—I’m looking at you, Exxon—accountable and removing the red tape that prevents legislators from passing bold climate policy. So long as these crooked carbon polluters continue to influence politics, little will change, and even more people will die.
The heat wave is a desperate outcry from the Earth to remind us of its wrath. Fossil fuel giants think they’re powerful, but they can trust the planet to show them a true unforgiving force. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable will always be the victims.