Breanna Reeves | Photos by Aryana Noroozi
“Our planet has just endured a season of simmering — the hottest summer on record. “Climate breakdown has begun,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Sept. 6.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) noted that August was the hottest month on record, followed by July, according to data from the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), an information service funded by the European Union.
On Aug. 29, the National Weather Services issued heat advisories in eight counties and excessive heat warnings across eight counties in California. Both advisories were issued for Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Temperatures rose to three digit numbers, ranging from 101 degrees to 114 degrees in both regions.
With the growing number of hotter days, climate experts suggest that in the future, summer may last longer than what is typical and extreme heat days will get hotter. By the end of the century, extreme heat temperatures could increase by roughly eight to 14 degrees Fahrenheit compared to historical records, according to Dr. Francesca Hopkins, climate change scientist and associate professor of climate change & sustainability at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).
According to a 2022 presentation from the city of Riverside’s office of sustainability and Riverside public utilities, the average annual maximum temperature will increase between five and eight degrees by the year 2100, with the average hottest day ranging from 114 degrees to 120 degrees.
The Impacts of Heat on Health
With extreme heat comes heat-related illnesses which can vary from a heat rash to a heat stroke. Heat-related illnesses have been on the rise with such extreme temperatures lasting throughout the summer. Southern California residents, especially those across the Inland Empire, often deal with heat-related illnesses, according to Dr. Shunling Tsang, deputy public health officer for Riverside University Health System (RUHS).
Riverside County has been tracking who’s impacted by the heat through their Heat-Related Illnesses Dashboard which displays heat-related hospitalizations and heat-related deaths across the county. The dashboard includes demographic data such as age, race/ethnicity and location.
“It gives us an idea of maybe some hotspots or some additional education that we can provide in the community,” Dr. Tsang explained. “So, being able to have visibility into where there might be an additional heat-related illness spike, we can then say maybe we need to provide additional education in that area to the residents who live there.”
According to the dashboard, hospitals in the Coachella Valley have experienced the most emergency room visits, accounting for 56.7% of heat-related hospitalizations in the county. Nearly 43% of those who were hospitalized identify as Hispanic or Latino. According to the Coachella Valley Water District, Coachella Valley’s farmland is among the largest crop-growing regions in the state with an estimated 8,000 agricultural workers laboring outdoors year-round.
“People who work in outdoor jobs, especially farmworkers, don’t have access to air conditioning during their work shift. They may be out during the hottest times of the day,” Dr. Hopkins explained. “I think those are groups we need to be concerned about, and that includes people that are unhoused, which we know we have a lot of in our communities as well.”
San Bernardino County’s 2023 Homeless Count Survey reported 2,976 unsheltered adults and children, up from 2,389 in 2022. Riverside County’s Point-in-Time count of unhoused residents showed an increase in the houseless populations from 3,316 in 2022 to 3,725 in 2023.
Unhoused populations, along with agricultural workers, are exposed to extreme heat because they are outdoors and lack shelter from the shade. Unhoused individuals may be forced to dwell on concrete sidewalks which retain heat during the summer and can be a hazard to sleep or lay on.
“When you’re in areas that have more paved surfaces, such as near a warehouse or in really developed urban cores of cities, those areas tend to be hotter. We have this term urban heat island to refer to that,” Dr. Hopkins shared. “It’s because those paved surfaces are really good at absorbing the sun’s radiation, basically the heat of the sun, during the day when the sun is shining directly on them.”
In addition to unhoused people and agricultural workers being more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses due to extended exposure to heat, older adults, younger children and people with certain health conditions are also at higher risks for developing heat-related illnesses. Those who also lack air conditioning and who may live in mobile dwellings also experience extreme heat, despite being indoors.
Environmental equity and the cost of keeping cool
As temperatures are expected to rise in coming weeks, Dr. Tsang shared ways people can protect themselves against extreme heat by first taking time to check their body for warning signs like excessive sweating, additional exhaustion, reddening skin or sensitivity to the sun. Dr. Tsang suggested that people experiencing these symptoms should drink water, wear sunscreen, and check on elderly neighbors.
Residents of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties also have access to cooling centers throughout the region where they can stay out of the sun. Cooling centers include public libraries, community centers and senior centers where people can seek protection from the heat.
Dr. Hopkins acknowledged the importance of access to green spaces and canopy coverage to protect residents from the heat. Parks and other outdoor spaces covered by trees tend to be cooler because they are watered often and they provide shade from the sun. Surfaces like the leaves, grass and soil hold on to the water as it evaporates, which keeps the area cooler.
“I think one of the things we really need to think about going forward with climate change is how can we make sure that we’re taking advantage of this evaporative cooling from green landscapes in a way that’s optimal for all communities,” Dr. Hopkins said. “Because there’s a very well-documented disparity in terms of who actually has access to neighborhoods with trees and parks.”
Black and brown communities tend to have a higher urban heat island effect, fewer green spaces and less tree cover compared to higher income areas with large white populations, Dr. Hopkins noted. According to the Center for American Progress, 74% of communities of color in the contiguous U.S. live in “nature-deprived areas,” compared to 23% of white communities.
While some households may have access to air conditioning, people with low incomes may have a hard time paying the electricity bills associated with air conditioning costs. According to data from Southern California Edison (SCE), the average residential electricity bill for the month of June has steadily increased each year as SCE residential rates increased. For the month of June 2023, the average monthly residential bill was $183 for residences who did not receive support from financial assistance programs.
SCE provides electricity to 15 million people across portions of 15 counties including San Bernardino County and parts of Riverside County. Gabriela Ornelas, spokesperson with SCE, explained that average monthly bills depend on several factors including the weather and climate zones. Roughly 90% of San Bernardino County — the largest county by area in the U.S. — is desert terrain.
“Customers who live in the desert may have higher energy use during the summer than a customer that lives on the coast simply because they don’t need to use their AC as much,” Ornelas said. SCE has also upgraded their grid to protect it from extreme weather and cyber attacks which contributes to their rate changes which usually occurs twice a year in January and June.
While temperatures will continue to rise as Earth warms, Dr. Hopkins is optimistic that the amount of warming can be limited by cutting emissions — “our fate isn’t sealed,” she remarked.
This article is published as part of the Commonwealth Health Equity Reporting Fellowship.