Heat action plans: We need them NOW
There is a funny meme being passed around which shows a revised version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Instead of food and water, a new level was added to the bottom labeled “AIRCON”—suggesting that it is now the most important physiological need for Filipinos.
The joke was undoubtedly inspired by the high heat index that the country has been having the past weeks. Last Friday, Pagasa reported that the heat index in Manila reached the “danger” level for the sixth day in a row. Under this category, people are more vulnerable to cramps and heat exhaustion, while those with prolonged sun exposure are at a higher risk for heatstroke.
According to the team of scientists from the World Weather Attribution initiative, human-driven climate change made the record-breaking heatwaves at least 30 times more likely than pre-industrial times. Countries have already pledged through the Paris Climate Agreement to try to limit the total warming to just 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, in order to prevent and minimize devastating impacts like extreme heat. The International Energy Agency strongly warned that in order to achieve this target, we cannot have any new oil and gas projects anywhere in the world. And yet, there are still investments being made in developing new fossil fuel infrastructure. Many scientists have predicted that unless drastic and monumental changes take place, the 1.5-degree threshold would be exceeded by the early 2030s.
Inaction has catastrophic consequences. And the poorest people are at the greatest risk. In the Philippines, the severity with which we’re experiencing the heat wave is already separating the haves from the have-nots. Heatstroke may seem like an avoidable death for those fortunate enough to live and work in air-conditioned places. But it is a very real threat to those whose manual work requires them to be under the sun, and to those who cannot afford efficient home cooling systems.
There is a global coalition led by RMI and other established climate action groups that are pushing for air-conditioning innovations that will make owning one more accessible. The Global Cooling Prize is a competition to develop more affordable AC units that will have “at least five times (5X) less climate impact” than those currently in the market. Various companies are already testing new models that are supposedly more reasonably priced while also using refrigerants that are less planet-warming. I am still not fully convinced that the mass adoption they’re envisioning for these products is possible given that many low-income families can barely afford their electric bills as it is. But I still think these efforts are worth pursuing and could be part of a much larger solution.
What the country urgently needs is a comprehensive and evidence-based heat action plan that can effectively educate the public, safeguard lives, and protect livelihoods. Funding should be allocated for extensive research on vulnerability assessments and corresponding heat mitigation strategies for affected populations. The government should also introduce regulations to protect heat-exposed workers (e.g., construction workers, vendors, security guards) such as mandatory cooling areas and timing work breaks with peak heat periods. Grassroots leaders and organizations should be mobilized in helping teach and train communities—using layman’s language to explain heat-related risks as well as life-saving behaviors.
Studies show that slums tend to have their own “microclimates” which are usually hotter than the declared heat index. This should be taken into consideration in designing efficient and more tailored public warning systems. Heat alerts for these neighborhoods should not only be given early, but they should also have a lower threshold for what is considered a “danger” level to account for the higher temperature. The government could also study some of the heat-preparedness programs and policies that other countries like India have been implementing in their most vulnerable communities to assess which best practices could be applied here.
Thousands of people die from heat-related causes every year, and many more suffer from other negative health and livelihood-related consequences. As temperatures continue to rise, heat waves will occur more frequently. Urgent and robust government response to the present heat risk could make a world of difference in reducing fatalities and other harmful impacts in the future.
At the same time, those of us who are not in power but privileged enough to spectate from our air-conditioned rooms have an equal responsibility to use our voices in engaging our political leaders and to advocate for climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives to be prioritized.
Suddenly, that Maslow meme does not seem so funny anymore.
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