While Rochester’s winters since 1970 have been swinging from warm to cold, the temperatures are going up overall. Our summer temperatures are not so up-and-down; they are getting steadily hotter. And, although there are many consequences of Climate Change in our region (including more powerful flash flooding that can overwhelm our transportation and wastewater systems), on a personal level it is the prospect of more heat waves that our local leaders should prioritize. People will want answers when large numbers die, and (given human nature) we will hold our leaders accountable when their constituents die in droves because of a failure to plan properly. Over time, heat waves kill more people than any other weather event. In just a few days in 1995, over 700 folks in Chicago died from extreme heat. If the authorities had been on top of this issue, fewer would have perished.
In Eric Klinenberg’s book “Heat Wave; A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago”, it wasn’t simply the heat that killed so many people. It was a failure of political leaders to understand the issues facing those most vulnerable to heat waves. Especially the elderly, the poor, and isolated folk’s inability to connect to help through proactive systems that would check up and provide them with assistance. One of the special issues that often comes with heat waves is power outages—which happened in the Chicago disaster. What happens when you’re at death’s door and the AC shuts down? Who ya gonna call when you ain’t got a phone?
The City of Rochester has a “Pet Care in Hot Weather” page on their website with advice on how to protect your pet from prolonged heat. Rochester has a “Cool Down with Cool Sweep” program to help those without access to alternative remedies for overheating. The homeless (and others we tend to shun) may not be so lucky. Although the City of Rochester has an “Energy Management and Climate Action Status Report”, they have not yet come out with a comprehensive climate action plan and certainly not one that addresses public health during Climate Change.
As for Monroe County’s Public Health Department, their website doesn’t even mention Climate Change or heat waves.
Not addressing the looming issue of increased heat waves is just one of the ways our local leaders are failing to address Climate Change. Many cities in the US have comprehensive Climate Change action plans. But not Rochester--yet. We are still waiting: Rochester to undertake citywide climate inventory (January 21, 2015) Rochester City Newspaper.
If you look hard enough, you can find information from the New York State Department of Health called “Keep Your Cool During Summer Heat”, which does connect the dots with Climate Change. And it mentions “Find out where to cool down - ask local officials about cooling centers in your area. If there are none, identify air-conditioned buildings where you can go (such as libraries, malls, supermarkets, or friends' homes).”
But this is not proactive. There is no social structure or government program to contact all those who do not otherwise have access to the help they need when they need it the most.
Addressing the public health problems that come with heat waves is far more complex than opening a fire hydrant or cracking the car window for your dog while you shop on a sweltering afternoon. Heat waves are baked into our region’s climate predictions and however awkward our government feels about Climate Change, they will be held accountable for not planning for public health issues like heat waves adequately.