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Heat Waves and How to Cope With Them

Climate
Heat Waves and How to Cope With Them
Kevin Brown / Getty Images

By Jennifer Weeks

Oppressive heat across much of North America since the end of June has buckled roads and driven Major League Baseball players off the field. July is the warmest time of year for much of the nation, so more heat waves could develop in the coming weeks. These articles from our archive offer insight into heat wave impacts, and some ways to cope with them.


1. Air conditioning: Solution and Problem

As incomes rise in developing countries, millions of people are buying air conditioners. That's good news, since fewer people will be exposed to unhealthy temperatures. For example, economist Lucas Davis of the University of California, Berkeley predicts that nearly 100 percent of Mexicans will have air conditioning within a few decades.

But generating electricity to run all those ACs will produce huge quantities of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion, plus emissions of refrigerants that also are powerful greenhouse gases. Paradoxically, then, the spread of air conditioning could worsen climate change, heating the planet up even more.

Energy demand for space cooling is growing rapidly in India and around the world, driven by rising incomes. EIA

To avoid that scenario, air conditioners will need to become more energy-efficient, and power generation will have to shift to low- and zero-carbon sources, such as wind and solar power. In Davis' view, adopting a carbon tax would promote those shifts and provide incentive to design cooling features into buildings. "We need efficient markets if we are going to stay cool without heating up the planet," he wrote.

2. Urban Hot Spots

City dwellers are especially at risk during heat waves because built surfaces, such as roads and buildings, trap heat during the day and release it at night. And within these urban heat islands, groups with the fewest resources—typically, minorities and the poor—are most vulnerable.

In a study in Hartford, University of Connecticut anthropologist Merrill Singer found that low-income Latino residents were well aware that climate change was making their city hotter and worried about coping with summer heat waves:

"Participants reported feeling excluded from local preparatory efforts to mitigate adverse impacts. They said they received no information about preparing for climate change, except for notices that the city had started opening up a few cooling stations in the lobbies of air-conditioned buildings during the summer."

Singer's research shows the need to reach out to disadvantaged groups in analyzing how climate change will affect cities – and to ensure that all residents have a voice.

3. Many Tools for Cooling

Emergency cooling centers are one way to mitigate the effects of heat waves, but cities need to do more. Nick Rajkovich, assistant professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo, has worked with planners around Cleveland to understand how they prepare for hot weather. Strategies there include planting more trees and shrubs, which provide shade and cool the air; weatherizing buildings with window shades and light-colored, reflective materials; and preparing emergency kits for power outages that include food, water and radios.

Most importantly, in Rajkovich's view, different agencies and organizations need to talk to each other and plan together so they can take complementary steps. "In Cleveland, preparing for extreme heat events has brought professionals together and encouraged overlapping approaches because no single strategy is foolproof," he observed. Officials "should pursue multiple solutions rather than looking for one 'best' option."

4. Rooftop Solutions

One way to make buildings more heat-proof is to weatherize their roofs, either by painting them white to reflect heat (so-called "cool roofs") or covering them with plants, which cool by absorbing water. But both options require careful planning to ensure that they will be effective in particular locations.

Ashish Sharma, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Notre Dame, studied how well green and cool roofs reduced urban heat island effects in Chicago. He found that while both techniques had a net cooling effect, they also reduced breezes from nearby Lake Michigan and altered air circulation in their immediate neighborhoods.

Each of these approaches has pluses and minuses, Sharma notes. Green roofs provide habitat for plants and insects and can help clean the air by absorbing pollutants. However, they also increase humidity by releasing water from their leaves and cost more to install and maintain than cool roofs. Geography can factor into the choice:

"Cities in northern latitudes, such as New York, Portland and Toronto, can benefit from green roofs because they have adequate water to irrigate them. In contrast, cool roofs are more appropriate for cities in arid and semi-arid environments such as the southwestern United States."

Green roof on Chicago's City Hall. Conservation Design Forum /CC BY-SA

5. Grounded by the Heat

Extreme heat affects physical structures as well as the people inside them. In 2017 extreme heat forced dozens of flight cancellations at airports in the U.S. Southwest—just when their passengers were probably thrilled to be escaping 120-degree temperatures.

As Columbia University's Radley Horton and Ethan Coffel explain, airplanes fly by generating lift through the flow of air over and under their wings. The amount of lift that a wing generates is affected by the density of the air, and warmer temperatures make air less dense. They write:

"The lower the air density, the faster an airplane must travel to produce enough lift to take off. It takes more runway to reach a higher speed, and depending on how long the airport's runway is, some airplanes might risk running out of room before reaching sufficient speed."

Sometimes airlines are forced to manage this issue by limiting how much weight planes can carry. Typically this happens at airports in hot regions, like Phoenix, or those with short runways, such as LaGuardia in New York City. But such measures could become much more common. Ultimately, Horton and Coffel predict, manufacturers could even have to redesign airplanes to operate safely in a hotter world.

Editor's note: This article is a roundup of stories from The Conversation's archive. Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

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By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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