This year’s record-breaking heat exposed issues throughout California, testing everything from building infrastructure to energy use.
Lisa Patel, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford, had long seen the potential for problems in Bay Area schools. Many buildings don’t have air conditioning and some structures were built without extreme heat in mind.
“The schools here were built for a different era and a different climate,” she said.
Patel says that kids are already more vulnerable than adults to environmental stressors like high heat. Children, at home or at school, often don’t have control over their environment, making it difficult to adapt when temperatures rise.
“Adults often control a [child’s] environment,” she said. “So it's incumbent upon us to construct these environments to ensure that they're safe for children.”
This issue is one that the whole country – and many other parts of the world – are grappling with, according to a UNICEF report published this week. The report found that, in 2020, 90% of children in the United States experienced frequent heat waves, which the report defines as 4.5 or more heat waves a year. The report also defines heat waves as events lasting three days or longer.
That percentage of children in the U.S. is significantly higher than the global average, which was 24% that same year. And that average, everywhere, is getting higher.
The report’s authors looked forward, analyzing what heat waves will look like in 2050 in two scenarios – the first, where greenhouse-gas emissions are lowered globally, and the second, where greenhouse-gas emissions continue to increase. Regardless of whether emissions are reduced or not, the report predicts that the roughly two billion children worldwide will experience frequent heat waves by 2050.
More frequent, more severe
While the U.S. saw frequent heat waves in 2020, the report also analyzed other components of heat waves like severity and duration. Gautam Narasimhan, UNICEF’s global climate lead, says that other parts of the world are increasingly experiencing extreme high temperatures, which the report defines as an area with a yearly average of 83.54 or more days exceeding 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
Narasimhan says researchers found that parts of North Africa and northwest India are seeing increasing numbers of days at those record highs. He says he’s worried about their long-term habitability.
“Once it gets that hot and it'll last that long, you're talking about getting to the kind of limits of what the human body can tolerate,” he said. “To what extent are kids even going to be able to live there?”
Narasimhan said the results of the report weren’t exactly a surprise to him. But, he said that they are a call to action, especially when it comes to deciding how to safeguard children from the impacts of extreme heat today.
“Given that some of these impacts of heat waves are virtually guaranteed, it's critical that we double our efforts in terms of adaptation,” Narasimhan said. “Not just looking at ways that we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also protecting kids against things that we know will happen.”
Adapting to extreme heat in California
Patel says that some of those adaptations can start in the healthcare system. She remembers one particularly informative moment from a few years ago, when a young couple came into her office, distressed that their infant was suffering from dehydration. She learned that they’d brought their baby home after a hospital visit and bundled the baby in a onesie and blankets, following the advice of the nurse that had attended to them.
But this was during a particularly hot time of year. Their apartment, already sweltering without air conditioning, warmed the baby up to the point of becoming dehydrated.
“It was a really sobering moment for me to realize that we as health professionals haven't been trained to help our patients think about environmental threats like climate change,” Patel said.
For older kids in California, schools are another key to safeguarding children from high heat. Jonathan Klein, co-founder of the environmental nonprofit Undaunted K12, says that heat waves can impact the safety of all aspects of student life, like playing outside during recess or participating in school sports. Schoolyards, for example, might get particularly hot on a high-temperature day if there are heat-attracting surfaces like black asphalt without adequate shade.
Those are the issues, Klein said, where adaptation is needed – and in California, recent additions to the state budget might help. In September, California set aside $150 million to help “green” schools across the state, which can mean planting trees and other vegetation in schoolyards without much shade.
Sharon Danks, founder of environmental nonprofit Green Schoolyards America, said that this is one way that schools can adapt to hotter temperatures in the future. Her organization recently launched its own initiative to help districts interested in adding more tree canopy to their schools, starting with California. Already, they’ve begun discussions with schools in the Bay Area and the Los Angeles region, along with other parts of the state, connecting them with resources to start these projects.
For Danks, Klein and others, there’s a lot of work ahead. Klein said that the key to this work is acting now, and helping educators understand their role in childrens’ lives in the midst of a changing climate.
“Education leaders have to start seeing themselves as climate leaders, too, in responding to how heat and or wildfire smoke [are] impacting children,” Klein said.
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