New York City is about 7ºF warmer in the summer than other parts of New York State. This is known as the urban heat island effect, which is caused by asphalt, concrete, and other building materials that absorb heat from the sun. Urban heat islands have also been linked to increased air pollution: High temperatures produce more photochemical reactions in the atmosphere, where higher concentrations of air pollutants react with sunlight to form smog. Climate change is only worsening these conditions, increasing summer temperatures and causing more severe and frequent heat waves.
These environmental conditions produce a variety of health risks for city residents, including dehydration, heat stroke, and respiratory and cardiovascular issues. In a previous blog post, NYLCV elaborated on the risks associated with the urban heat island effect and outlined NYC’s initiatives to mitigate these challenges, including CoolRoofs, creating more cooling centers, and planting trees in areas that lack green space.
The Cooling Assistance Benefit Program, which provides low-income and at-risk communities with air conditioners and fans, is one particularly essential program. However, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and strict social distancing requirements, many are worried about the availability of these resources as higher temperatures approach. If social distancing measures persist through the summer, New Yorkers may not be able to visit public places such as libraries or parks to cool down. This leaves people in low-income communities that cannot afford their own air conditioners or fans particularly vulnerable to warm weather risks.
On April 23, the Office of the Comptroller released an open letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio that expresses the urgent need for cooling assistance this summer. The letter states that in recent years, people without air conditioning in their homes produced 80% of heat stroke deaths in the city. 11% of homes lack air conditioning across the five boroughs, but that number soars to 25% of homes in several vulnerable neighborhoods. Thankfully, on May 15, the Office of the Mayor announced plans to protect the most vulnerable New Yorkers from summer heat waves, and the City Council will hold an oversight hearing about heat vulnerability on May 26.
In conjunction with the urban heat island effect, climate change will mean that cities will experience drastic temperature changes faster, longer, and more intensely, especially in environmental justice communities. NYLCV looks forward to working with Mayor de Blasio, the City Council, and other stakeholders to make sure that the most vulnerable New Yorkers are protected from extreme heat.