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Social and Political Reasons for
Increased Risk

“conditions that increase the risk of heat impacts”. with icons beneath accompanying labels. From left to right, top to bottom: active wheelchair user icon labeled “disabled, pregnant and sick people”, an icon of a person walking with a cane labeled “children and older people”, an icon of a tent labeled “poor people, unhoused and displaced folks”, an icon of a person running labeled “people doing activities”. the next row have three icons, showing a construction worker digging, a restaurant dish washer and a farm worker; this row is captioned “outdoor workers including construction, landscaping, farm workers; dishwashers and other kitchen workers, warehouse and factory workers, etc.”

Social and Political Reasons for Risk

Heat-related illness and death is preventable. It is the presence or absence of appropriate policy to support survival that makes heat survivable or not.  

Some of us are set up to survive and others are not. 


The most significant adaptation to support human life during heat - cooling - has been deemed a luxury instead of the necessity it is. In contrast we don’t expect people to buy their own heat sources to heat their apartments, it is a required component of housing design. 

Requiring people to pay for their own air conditioning, which is often insufficient and is the least energy efficient, means that many of those whose bodies have the most sensitivity and least ability to thermoregulate or endure the additional stress of heat, are also the people with the least ability to fund adaptations necessary for their survival. Disabled people are disproportionately poor. And, as recent research has highlighted, crip poverty is even worse than currently represented by statistics, because the poverty line has a strong ableist bias and ignores the additional costs disabled people are required to spend to stay alive. 


The myriad of impacts of racism that result in housing discrimination, negatively affect access to and quality of healthcare, education, employment also result in disproportionate risk for racialized people, particularly those who are poor, elder and/or disabled.


It is not helpful to think of a person as one of the “vulnerable” because this locates the cause and the solution at an entirely individual level and ignores the role of society in failing to create the conditions necessary for humans - all humans - to survive and thrive. 


We understand this about cold but not heat. 


If a person dies of hypothermia in their unheated home in winter does anyone ask about their “pre-existing conditions”? Or do we understand that humans can die in very cold temperatures if they do not have access to heating? When people die from the cold outside in the winter due to being unhoused it means they died because of their lack of housing. The same is true for those who die in summer heat. 


“When vulnerability is understood as a universal constant, the task then becomes to explore the strategies by which we can mitigate this vulnerability. Therefore, human beings are not rendered more or less vulnerable because of certain characteristics or at various stages in our lives, but we do experience the world with differing levels of resilience. The inequality of resilience is at the heart of vulnerability theory because it turns attention to society and social institutions. No one is born resilient. Rather, resilience is produced within and through institutions and relationships that confer privilege and power.”  Source  

Some of the external factors that impact how we will experience heat are:


  1. Climate change

  2. Colonialism 

  3. Rural vs urban (urban heat island and intra-urban heat islands)

  4. Poverty - Globally and locally

  5. Racism

  6. Ableism

  7. Ageism

  8. Housing or Lack of Housing

  9. Being incarcerated 

  10. Long-term care without air conditioning

  11. Capitalism

  12. The kind of work you do

  13. Isolation

  14. Borders

  15. City planning

  16. Undocumented status

  17. LGBQT

  18. When Your Body Doesn’t Meet Society’s Expectations 


Primary Adaptation

The number one and only external factor that mitigates how ANY body responds to heat is the presence or absence of AIR CONDITIONING/COOLING! 


Secondary Adaptations

Planting trees, creating more green space, changing how we plan and build housing and urban areas are all secondary mitigators, meaning they will alter how much we require and utilize air conditioning. But air conditioning is the first and most essential mitigator that must be universally accessible and understood as necessary to sustain human life. 


Priorities?: One of the first places to get modern air conditioning was the New York Stock Exchange in 1903.


No really, it’s about the air conditioning. “In an average year, Seattle records less than one day in which the average temperature rises above 85 degrees, according to the paper. Houston has about eight such days per year. Any individual hot day, the authors find, leads to more deaths in temperate Seattle than in hot Houston.

“In Houston, everyone has air conditioners,” says one of the authors, economist Amir Jina at the University of Chicago. “In Seattle, no one has air conditioners. You’d expect the impacts to be worse in Seattle than Houston for an extremely hot day.” Source


Additional Reading

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