How NYC can protect residents from extreme heat

As the climate changes, New York City is getting hotter and putting more people’s health at risk.
As the climate changes, New York City is getting hotter and putting more people’s health at risk.
eddtoro/Shutterstock
As the climate changes, New York City is getting hotter and putting more people’s health at risk.

How NYC can protect residents from extreme heat

Air conditioning is a lifeline, and it’s expensive. There are policies that can help.
May 16, 2021

Summer is right around the corner, and while many New York City residents may view the season as a time for fun in the sun, others dread what the rising temperatures might mean for their health.

Extreme heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the United States. In New York City, roughly 130 people die of heat-related issues each year, according to the city Department of Health. That number is likely to grow as climate change causes more extreme heat. In 2016, researchers at Columbia University estimated that the city could see as many as 3,331 deaths caused by heat by 2080 if nothing was done to combat rising temperatures caused by climate change.

Thanks to what is known as the “urban heat island effect,” which is caused by a lack of greenery, heat absorbing building materials and asphalt, a lack of ventilation and geographical location, cities tend to be 2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than suburban areas during the day and up to 22 degrees warmer at night. New York City is expected to see the number of 90-degree days triple by 2050, based on current projections. 

In the city, neighborhoods with low-income housing, less foliage and larger communities of color, particularly those in the South Bronx, Central Brooklyn and Upper Manhattan, tend to bear the brunt of the city’s rising temperatures, as well as other climate disasters, such as hurricanes. “Flooding might be something that happens every few years. But heat waves are something that we're going to have to deal with every single year,” said Annel Hernandez, associate director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

The city has been taking steps to lower heat-vulnerable neighborhoods’ heat indexes, which measure the risk of suffering from heat-related illnesses or deaths. Interventions include painting reflective paint on sidewalks and roofs, planting more trees, setting up cooling centers and giving out free air conditioners to those who cannot afford them. But for people who cannot afford to use their air conditioner because of the electricity costs, environmental scientists and advocates say the city and state needs to implement more programs and policies to help lower the cost of air conditioning – in addition to dealing with the climate crisis overall.

According to city data from 2007, about 87.5% of all city households have a functioning air conditioner – but in a city of eight million, that means hundreds of thousands of people are without a viable cooling system. And in some of the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, more than 20% of residents lack air conditioning. Last summer, the city gave out 74,000 air conditioners for free, but more are still in need of air conditioning. 

Aside from that, many low-income residents are not in the financial position to foot energy bills that can go up 20 to 30% from running air conditioning appliances, Sonal Jessel, the director of policy based in New York City at We Act for Environmental Justice, told City & State. “People just don't turn on their AC units because that cost is absolutely unbearable, especially during a pandemic, (rising) unemployment rates and all these other hardships. It's absolutely restrictive for people to have enough cooling for their health,” she said, adding that most individuals who have died from heat-related causes either did not have an air conditioner or did not turn it on due to the cost.

“Flooding might be something that happens every few years. But heat waves are something that we're going to have to deal with every single year.” – Annel Hernandez, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance associate director

Many residents of heat-vulnerable neighborhoods also tend to live in housing that is not energy-efficient, which can result in higher energy costs, Jessel said.

“(We) need to make sure people's homes are energy-efficient and weatherized, especially lower income households in New York City, who live in older buildings that they don't get the maintenance that they deserve,” Jessel said. “The windows might be leaking, their homes don't have good ventilation, so they’re using a lot more energy to cool their home.”

Last July, Con Edison, the city’s major electricity supplier, announced that it would be raising its rates by 10%. While the state has prohibited utility companies from shutting off service throughout the course of the pandemic, the ban is only temporary. 

Prior to the pandemic, the state mandated a no shut-off rule during the cooler months, as people could potentially freeze to death without adequate heating, but climate justice advocates are pushing for a no shut-off rule in warmer months as well. 

There are programs, such as the state’s Home Energy Assistance Program, that can help pay for air conditioning and utility bills. Last year, the city petitioned the state Public Service Commission to help provide people with energy bill assistance, which was able to take about $34 off of utility bills per month, according to Hernandez, though that’s hardly enough to deal with electricity bills that can be more than $100 per month in the summer. 

Many low-income residents are not in the financial position to foot energy bills that can go up 20 to 30% from running air conditioning appliances.

The city has also created cooling centers where people can go to beat the heat for free. However, the centers are not a long-term solution to the city’s cooling problem. “The cooling centers are managed in a very ad hoc way,” Hernandez said. “It's the libraries or the senior centers that are the spaces available to the community. These are not 24-hour spaces, they're usually available during certain hours that tend to be in the daytime. And in addition to that, the locations of the cooling centers aren't publicized until an actual heat event. Having more consistent communication to the community about these locations would make them better operated.” 

Another issue with the city’s cooling centers is that they are not fully accessible to everyone who needs them. Many of the city’s seniors, who are particularly vulnerable in high temperatures, live over half a mile away from cooling centers.

While the city and state have implemented several programs to deal with rising energy costs, the only true long-term solution to the issue at hand is mitigating the effects of climate change, according to experts.

“You know, I think the city has, for the most part, correctly identified the steps that they need to take to mitigate the urban heat island effect,” Patrick McClellan, policy director at the New York League of Conservation Voters, told City & State. “But what we really need to see from the next administration is scaling that up and being a lot more aggressive in pursuing it because it is a question of time, and the quicker that we act on things like more street trees and parks and cool roofs, the more lives that we save.”

Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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