California leaders announce first-in-nation ranking of heat waves
Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, Assembly Members Luz Rivas and Eduardo Garcia, and Senator Henry Stern propose to create early warning system to help protect Californians from climate change-intensified heat-related deaths and injuries
GLASGOW – As the international climate conference wraps up in Scotland, California leaders are taking action to stop the “silent killer” of extreme heat waves intensified by climate change back home. California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara will sponsor legislation jointly authored by Assembly Members Luz Rivas (D-San Fernando Valley) and Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) to establish the nation’s first ranking system for heat waves, a critical step toward preventing heat-related deaths and injuries. Senator Henry Stern (D-Los Angeles) will be a principal co-author of the legislation.
With heat waves responsible for more deaths and injuries than all other extreme weather events, ranking heat waves is a recommendation contained in the first-of-its-kind report on climate insurance that Commissioner Lara and the California Climate Insurance Working Group released earlier this year. The new report is aimed at protecting low-income communities, seniors, and those without insurance who are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
California’s latest Climate Assessment projects that heat waves will be more intense, longer, and more frequent in years ahead. From 1980 to 2000, there were an average of 6 annual extreme heat days in Los Angeles. By 2050, that number is predicted to be 22 days. In 2020, emergency room visits increased by 10 times the normal number during record-breaking heat as high as 121 degrees in Los Angeles County. California’s 2021 heat wave broke records across the state, with Sacramento topping out at 109 degrees and the Coachella Valley having its hottest year ever with temperatures reaching 123 degrees.
Under the proposed legislation, California would develop a publicly accessible ranking system for heat waves with clear categories based on heat intensity and health impacts that would provide early warning to communities and enable public policy makers to craft prevention strategies and risk reduction measures, among other effective responses.
“Just as we have air quality alerts, categories for tropical hurricanes, and red flag warnings for wildfires, California needs a way to warn our residents about extreme heat waves which will only grow deadlier in the years ahead,” said Commissioner Lara. “There is no insurance against heat. If we act now to implement a ranking system like we have for other disasters, we can help prevent deaths from this silent killer, especially those most at risk like our seniors.”
“During my visit to the United Nations’ COP26 climate change conference, we learned that other nations are now surpassing California’s efforts to combat extreme heat,” said Assemblywoman Rivas, who chairs the Assembly Natural Resources Committee. “California’s climate has become increasingly erratic – we must take bold action to protect our residents from the climate crises affecting our state. As someone who has been advocating for greater coordination, planning, and funding to mitigate extreme heat, I’m excited to work with Commissioner Ricardo Lara and my colleague Eduardo Garcia, both of whom are environmental leaders and champions for Californians disproportionately suffering from the effects of rising temperatures.”
“Extreme rising temperatures, record-breaking heat waves, and increased power outages like those being experienced in my district are further jeopardizing public health, safety, and living conditions in our most vulnerable communities who are already battling on the frontlines of the climate crisis,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, who chairs the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. “We can no longer sit idle as heat strikes as a silent killer of our constituents. Ranking heat waves will help save lives across our state by providing more ways to effectively communicate warnings and respond to this threat. I am proud to join forces with a powerhouse of policymakers to tackle this lethal issue.”
"Expert after expert identified extreme heat as the most dangerous climate disaster risk for vulnerable populations in our recent hearing on this topic. Consider us eager partners in the effort to rank heat waves to protect Californians from heat-related deaths," said Senator Henry Stern (D-Los Angeles) Chair of both the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management and the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee.
“On behalf of the 40 global members of the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, we applaud Commissioner Lara, Assembly Member Rivas and Assembly Member Garcia for their vision and leadership in taking this bold action to protect people from extreme heat,” said Kathy Baughman McLeod, Senior Vice President and Director of the Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center at the Atlantic Council, Chair of the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, and member of the Climate Insurance Working Group that recommended ranking heat waves. “A new, improved warning system that is based on human health will alert the public, and especially vulnerable people, to the serious threat from heat waves and ultimately, save lives. This model initiative will be a gateway to a comprehensive set of interventions and policies that make Californians more resilient to heat.”
Commissioner Lara is also a founding member of the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, formed by the Arsht-Rockefeller Resilience Center in 2020 along with 40 other global leaders, which is spearheading the effort to rank heat waves and prepare communities around the world.
Commissioner Lara to study the extreme heat insurance “protection gap”
To complement the proposed new legislation, Commissioner Lara announced that the California Department of Insurance will also undertake a study to identify the extreme heat insurance “protection gap” in health care and other areas for affected communities in Southern California, which is another recommendation from the Climate Insurance Working Group’s report. Commissioner Lara will work with experts to develop a method for estimating extreme heat costs from past events, thus helping forecast future uninsured costs and allowing local leaders to prioritize mitigation efforts.
"Thanks to climate change, heat waves are getting worse, and redlining left communities of color with the fewest resources to cope – too often lacking trees, green spaces or access to adequate air conditioning," said Sona Mohnot, Associate Director of Climate Equity at Greenlining Institute and a member of the Climate Insurance Working Group. "Ranking heat waves will help us identify extreme heat as the life-threatening emergency it is and give communities the information needed to stay safe, healthy and protected."
“We applaud the state for concretely communicating the dangers of extreme heat," said Kristen Torres Pawling, Sustainability Program Director at the County of Los Angeles Chief Sustainability Office and a member of the Climate Insurance Working Group. "More than 2 million people in greater L.A.. are highly vulnerable to rising temperatures, but local governments can't prepare for climate impacts unless they have the data to buttress their resilience planning and budgeting."
“Improved warning systems are essential to reduce the risks of extreme heat and will be a great asset to our work. People can’t protect themselves if they don’t know they are at risk,” said Jonathan Parfrey, Executive Director of Climate Resolve. “Climate Resolve congratulates Commissioner Lara, Assemblymember Rivas and Assemblymember Garcia for this important initiative that will save lives from the growing threat of extreme heat.“
Legislation will create statewide “early warning” for heat waves
The proposed legislation – which will be formally introduced when the California State Legislature reconvenes for its 2022 session in January – would direct the development of a statewide program to rank heat waves and improve the advance warning that communities receive. A heat wave ranking system will assist local and state governments to better target resources, policies, and communication outreach strategies towards vulnerable communities, assist households in preparing for heat waves, and aim to save lives and significantly reduce health impacts.
The Climate Insurance Working Group’s report recommends that the heat wave designation should include categories of magnitude, and communications to the public about the event should include details related to geographic location, measures of severity, and potential duration to make it easier to track, in addition to other relevant information.
The different categories would be accompanied by recommended precautions for the public to take based on the intensity of the heat event, with additional precautions described for vulnerable populations. For example, a heat wave warning could urge vulnerable people like the elderly and those with respiratory illnesses to decrease physical activity outside, limit certain electricity use, and seek shelter and identify cooling centers that are available in areas most affected, among other strategies.