Extreme heat in the summer has become America’s brutal new reality. But local, state and federal aid programs and infrastructure to help people cool down haven’t kept up with the country’s record-shattering temperatures. Climate, energy and urban researchers are urging policymakers to implement solutions to mitigate the danger of heat on vulnerable residents and design cooler cities and towns for a hotter future. “There is no national plan to help lower-income families to transition to higher temperatures,” said Mark Wolfe, the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which represents state energy assistance programs for low-income Americans. “The solutions we have are based on shorter heat waves and more temperate summers. Public policy hasn’t caught up.” Wolfe is calling for congressional funding to retrofit low-income homes for cooling. This effort would pay for energy-efficient air conditioning equipment and insulation. It would also include building code changes that require multi-family homes provide cooling the same way they do heating. Last year, Chicago passed a law requiring certain new and existing residential buildings to install air conditioners in indoor common areas, and Los Angeles is exploring an air conditioner requirement for all rental units. But that won’t be enough to keep people cool as temperatures rise. Cities are warmer than their surrounding areas, a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect, and they need to be better designed to keep people cool, researchers say. This will require investments in urban trees, forests and infrastructure. That means planting more trees and building shade structures; so-called cool roofs and streets with reflective surfaces to lower temperatures; and updated building codes. “We can’t just air condition our way out of the problem,” said Rushad Nanavatty, managing director of RMI, a clean energy think tank that is part of the Cool Coalition, a United Nations-led effort to address urban cooling. “We don’t view urban nature as infrastructure, but that’s exactly what it is. We spend an order of magnitude less on it than we should if you consider the full range of benefits.” Beating the heat Underfunded energy assistance programs and poorly designed urban areas put low-income, elderly and other vulnerable Americans most at risk when temperatures spike. Most low-income families have access to cooling in their homes, but they lack the money to turn it on, costing them an average of 8.6% of their income to pay for home energy — three times that of higher-income families, according to the US Department of Energy. And prices will rise this summer by 11.7% to an average of $578, up from $517 last summer, according to the NEADA. Heat is a major public health concern, but its priority in federal and state assistance programs is not proportionate. Heat kills more Americans every year than any other weather-related disaster. Each year, an average of more than 700 people die from heat and more than 9,000 people are hospitalized nationally due to heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But experts say the death tolls and hospitalization rates are vastly under-counted. “Extreme heat hasn’t been thought of in the same vain as other disasters and emergency situations,” said Nanavatty. “Extreme heat is an increasing emergency, but our response isn’t there.” Take, for example, the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides formula grants to states to help low-income families pay their heating and cooling bills. About 80% of the program’s funding is used by states to help families pay their heating bills, Mark Wolfe said, leaving little money left for families to pay for cooling bills in the summer. Additionally, fewer states have protections against power shutoffs during the summer than they do for heating in the winter. Twenty states and Washington, DC, bar certain utility companies from disconnecting customers for nonpayment during extreme heat, while 40 states have cutoff protections during the winter. “The programs are rooted in cold weather. They were designed 40 years ago when summer temperatures were much cooler,” Mark Wolfe said. “Our approach toward cooling is much weaker than our approach toward heating.” His organization has called for increased funding for LIHEAP, which only helps one out of six households who are eligible, and a national moratorium on shutting families off from power this summer. Public health departments and governments often run cooling centers in schools or other air-conditioned buildings when temperatures rise, but there are limitations to these centers. A study published last year by the CDC found that in two counties in Arizona, Maricopa and Yuma, “several barriers inhibit cooling center use, including the inability to bring pets and limited access by public transportation.” Most places also do not open cooling centers unless the temperature rises to a certain level. New York City, for example, has not opened its cooling centers because the National Weather Service hasn’t issued a heat advisory. But the city’s health department recorded nearly 150 heat-related emergency room visits over a two week stretch in July, compared to 20 last year. Solutions Cities need to expand their definitions of cooling centers to movie theaters, shopping malls, parks, transit hubs and other conveniently-located areas, researchers say, and keep them open for longer. Cities can also provide more shade for residents and design cool roofs and streets to protect people from extreme heat. “Cities themselves contribute to heat and how a person experiences heat waves,” said V. Kelly Turner, an assistant professor of urban planning and geography at UCLA. “The two big way cities are trying to address heat are through shade and reflective surfaces — cool pavements and cool roofs.” Pavements and roofs comprise over 60% of urban surfaces, and cities can require new buildings and surfaces to use materials that lighten the surface color of roofs and streets to reflect, not absorb, sunlight. Trees and vegetation also lower surface and air temperatures. Shaded surfaces, for example, may be 20 to 45 degrees cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Vegetation is most useful as a heat mitigation strategy when it is planted in strategic locations around buildings or to shade pavement in parking lots and on streets. In Miami-Dade County, the city has an initiative to cover 30% of the county with tree canopies. “How do we make people feel cooler — the most effective way we can do that is shade,” said Turner.