Climate Change, Health, and Equity: The Effects of Extreme Heat in Atlanta

Co-authored by Joseph Mendonca

Together with the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE), Smart Growth America has been raising awareness about the compounding effects of climate change, including the interactions between extreme heat, the built environment, pre-existing health conditions, and social inequalities in Atlanta, Georgia. In southwest Atlanta, PSE and SGA interviewed residents, activists, and climate policy leaders to learn from their experiences with the dangers of extreme heat and to hear about their communities’ needs for policy and advocacy strategies that create safer and more accessible infrastructure.

In 2023, Atlanta experienced the second-hottest year in near a century. With the heat index routinely straying into triple digits over the summer, school activities were forced inside, Zoo Atlanta closed early to maintain animal welfare, households struggled with high power bills, and firefighters, construction workers, and other outdoor workers strove to protect themselves from heat-related illnesses. These extreme heat events, and others like them, are becoming increasingly common and worsening systemic inequities. In Atlanta, there is a clear need for policies and programs that equitably address this threat, including smart growth initiatives that redress the legacies of redlining and other racist land use policies.

What is extreme heat?
An extreme heat event, as defined by FEMA, is a period in which temperatures are “excessively hot” compared to the norm for that region and time of year. The body normally cools itself down through sweating, releasing its excess heat into the surrounding air as sweat evaporates. But when temperatures exceed the body’s ability to cool itself, or if the air is humid enough to prevent sweat from evaporating fast enough, normal body processes and organ functioning can be affected. This manifests as heat-related illnesses, like heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which, if not addressed immediately, can be fatal. Those most vulnerable to heat-related illnesses (the elderly, children, and those with pre-existing conditions) and those most exposed to outdoor conditions (outdoor workers, pedestrians and bicyclists, the unhoused, and those without consistent access to AC) are especially impacted.

The National Weather Service uses the heat index (which considers both temperature and humidity) to issue alerts when outside conditions can be harmful to human health. Depending on location, alert procedures begin at around 105°-110°F, although heat-related illnesses can even occur before that.

To help inform policy and advocacy efforts in Atlanta, Smart Growth America partnered with the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE) to learn from community members, advocates, policy leaders, and researchers about their experiences with extreme heat and how they want to see it addressed. Supported by the Kresge Foundation’s Climate Change, Health, and Equity (CCHE) initiative, the project is part of a larger collaboration that aims to advance racial equity and mitigate the effects of climate change in Atlanta. In 2022, PSE and SGA produced a report and factsheets on strategies to achieve energy equity, to develop a less carbon-intensive economy, and to train a growing green workforce. Over the past year, PSE formed a Community Advisory Board (CAB) with members drawn from southwest Atlanta to hear directly from residents on their top-of-mind climate- and health-related issues affecting their everyday life. Hearing that extreme heat and energy burdens were key concerns, we continued our work with a narrative-based approach, compiling testimonies from residents on their lived experiences with extreme heat to raise awareness on how communities can better prepare for and stay safe during extreme heat events.

The video, “ATL Rising: Building resilience in the face of extreme heat,” is centered on these resident testimonies and on strategies for policies and infrastructure that are more prepared for the challenges extreme heat brings.

The video highlights how extreme heat is causing an energy burden and illnesses like heat exhaustion and difficulty breathing when Atlanta community members are overexposed to high temperatures, and how Atlanta is representative of larger systemic issues, including racist land use policies, chronic disinvestment, and environmental injustices. To address extreme heat, advocates and policy makers must have a clear understanding of these impacts and must learn from community members about their needs and wants for a safe, prosperous, and healthy Atlanta.

“Recently and historically, people are leaving their homes at unsafe temperatures.” — Chandra Farley, Chief Sustainability Officer, Atlanta Office of Sustainability

For households in Atlanta that are already experiencing the effects of extreme heat, there are steps they can take right now to help mitigate the effects they have on both their health and their financial situation. From taking advantage of programs to support their home’s energy efficiency to knowing how to identify and help those struggling with heat-related illnesses, community members can also play a role in making their community more resilient to heat.

Partner Initiatives

After engaging in this project, the Community Advisory Board (CAB) has taken steps to pursue funding to employ tangible infrastructure solutions in their communities to address extreme heat. If granted, they will be able to partner with local businesses to install public water stations, as well as create a digital resource hub that will direct residents to nearby cooling stations and other resources intended to help Atlanta residents stay cool during extremely hot days. In addition, the CAB has been drafting policy recommendations focusing on subsidizing the weatherization of homes for people of color.

The CAB has also helped develop the following infographics that aim to educate the public on common heat-related illnesses, tips for staying cool inside the home, and programs available to assist in lowering energy bills:

  1. Staying safe in the heat
  2. Handling high energy costs from heat

Save the date!
Join the Partnership for Southern Equity on Wednesday, July 24, 2024 for a video screening event and discussion on extreme heat, climate change, and equitable infrastructure. The screening will take place at the PSE office (667 Fairburn Rd NW, Atlanta, GA) from 6:00—8:00 PM EST.

SGA and PSE are thankful to The Kresge Foundation, which has been instrumental in advancing our CCHE work.

Climate Change Resilience Technical assistance