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Extreme heat causes deaths in California, economic losses

California Heat Wave Weather

People fish off the Alameda Pier with the San Francisco skyline behind them on July 1, on the cusp of an extended heat wave in Northern California.

Noah Berger, Associated Press

The heatwave in California over the past week and the July 4 holiday could top the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth. Such extreme heat has caused more deaths than wildfires and cost billions of dollars over the course of a decade, according to the state Insurance Department.

According to the 2022 order, a new department report analyzed seven extreme heat events that occurred in the state between 2013 and 2022 and found that several hundred Californians died in each event.

These events also had a cumulative economic impact of $7.7 billion in lost wages and productivity, disruptions to agriculture and industry, power outages, infrastructure damage, and more.

The state’s 20 deadliest wildfires, dating back to 1933, claimed a combined 312 lives, according to Cal Fire. The death toll from extreme heat identified by the Insurance Department was higher — estimated at nearly 460 in the first-of-its-kind report released by the department last week. And it’s likely that the death toll was actually higher, nearly 4,000 over the course of the decade, a 2019 Los Angeles Times analysis found.

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Michael Mendez, an assistant professor of environmental planning and policy at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “Climate Change from the Streets,” agreed that the death toll is likely higher because the effects of extreme heat are difficult to quantify and quantify.

“It’s really important to understand that heat is a silent killer,” Mendez said. But extreme heat “requires the same urgency that large disasters like wildfires have,” he added.

California Weather

A bank sign in Sacramento on Wednesday showed a temperature of 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Much of Northern California has seen temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit this week.

Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

One of the main goals of the report is to provide data that can help policymakers, governments, businesses and the insurance industry take action and provide information.

According to the report, insurance only partially covers some of the consequences and costs associated with the heatwave, such as lost wages for workers, power outages for residents and businesses, and damage to railways.

Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara and the department are faced with addressing insurance availability and affordability issues that have plagued the state as some insurers have stopped renewing or issuing new homeowners policies, citing wildfire risk as a factor.

The report follows years of warnings about extreme heat and other impacts of climate change from other state entities, such as the Legislative Analyst’s Office, and efforts by lawmakers to respond to those warnings.

The 92-page report, which assesses insured and uninsured heat costs and recommends rapid action and changes, was mandated by a bill sponsored by Lara that was signed into law in 2022 and whose primary goal was to establish a classification system for extreme heat. That system, CalHeatScore, is currently being developed by the state’s Environmental Protection Agency with help from other state agencies and is set to be implemented next year.

The report also found that the effects of extreme heat are disproportionately felt by low-income communities, older adults and outdoor workers. Black, Native American and Latino Californians had the highest death rates, respectively, compared with Asians and white Californians during the events examined in the report. That’s why the report’s authors — the Department of Insurance, with input from the state’s Climate Insurance Working Group and a consultant hired to produce the report — call for equity when considering extreme heat policies and programs, taking into account the needs of vulnerable groups, including older adults living alone and outdoor and indoor workers.

In addition to hundreds of deaths, the report found that extreme heat caused more than 5,000 hospitalizations, nearly 10,600 emergency department visits, more than 138,000 outpatient visits and nearly 344 adverse birth outcomes.

Kathy Baughman McLeod is the CEO of Climate Resilience for All, a global nonprofit dedicated to addressing extreme heat in vulnerable communities. She is part of the working group and said the data from this new report could be used to help “normalize heat insurance products.”

“We can use this data to create forecast-based insurance products that will pay out when a forecast heatwave occurs,” she added.

Baughman McLeod would know—she’s worked with insurers to create new insurance products, such as insurance that helps replace the income of women in India who can’t work in extremely hot weather because the products they sell might spoil or their hours are cut. She’s also helped create insurance for coral reefs in Mexico.

Meanwhile, the effects of extreme heat on health and life insurance are not yet known. Adrita Bhattacharya-Craven, director of health and demography at global insurance think tank The Geneva Association, said the Insurance Department’s findings are consistent with some of her organization’s findings on health, climate and insurance, especially the disproportionate impacts on older people and vulnerable populations. She said there is almost no climate-sensitive data on mortality or morbidity when insurance claims are processed, except for deaths caused by wildfires or possibly extreme heat.

“For example, a physician is likely to report a stroke as a regular stroke without specifying that it was caused by prolonged heat exposure,” Bhattacharya-Craven said. “There are currently no tools that consistently capture this information. … In the long term, we need to map susceptibility in greater detail.”

California Heat Wave Weather

A man wipes sweat from his forehead Sunday in Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park.

Ty Oneil, Associated Press

Other key recommendations in the report include:

– Increase investment in disaster planning and leverage existing state and federal funds to prioritize efforts such as strengthening infrastructure to protect against extreme weather events and restoring access to trees and green spaces.

– Encourage policies to reduce heat-related illness and injury among workers across sectors. This includes encouraging businesses to “meet above the minimum indoor and outdoor temperature standards” set by governments.

– Reducing the costs of monitoring extreme heat planning.

The report also recommends planting more trees, which can help provide shade, improve health outcomes, reduce energy needs and more. It also calls for cooling systems for dairy cows — important because California is the nation’s largest milk producer.

Several of those recommendations are already being implemented in some way. The National Occupational Safety and Health Board recently approved a rule requiring employers to reduce the risk of extreme heat for warehouse, restaurant and other workers. After a long delay, it is set to take effect in August. Also last week, the federal OSHA proposed a rule, years in the making, that tells employers how to protect indoor and outdoor workers from the heat when temperatures reach two thresholds: 80 degrees and 90 degrees.

Municipalities like Los Angeles have programs to help some residents afford air conditioners or split utility bills to make them more affordable so residents don’t shy away from using air conditioners when they need them. Cooling and Resilience Centers in different parts of the state are helping people who need relief from the heat.

But Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a budget last week that cut funding for extreme heat programs and projects by $107.8 million and shifted $55.7 million between programs. The cuts include funding and other assistance for tribal, local and regional entities to establish heat action plans, provide shade, expand green spaces, educate the public about heat and more.

Some of that money could be restored through a bond measure proposed by lawmakers on the November ballot that would raise hundreds of millions of dollars for programs to combat extreme heat.

As extreme heat events become more common, Baughman McLeod said the report’s findings are just the first step. She said systems for dealing with extreme heat are not adequate, but that the report’s findings should prompt urgent action from policymakers and others.

“We can’t do this fast enough,” she said, adding that “the world is watching what California does.”