June 2022 will mark the one-year anniversary of the record-setting heat wave that killed over 500 people across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Canada. The Pacific Northwest, known for cold, rainy winters and mild summers reached high temperatures in 2021 with 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, Oregon and 121 degrees in Lytton, Canada.
Oregon’s Multnomah County saw the most deaths. An analysis found most of the people who died were older, lived by themselves, and had no functioning air conditioning.
Many areas affected by this heatwave had cooling shelters available, including in public spaces like libraries. But advocates argue that this is not enough.
“The idea of cooling centers is just, to me, this lack of understanding that where people live has got to be a core standard […] especially when you are talking about older and disabled individuals,” said Ruth Ann Norton, the CEO of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative non-profit, which works to create safe, healthy, and energy efficient homes through direct services and policy advocacy.
“I know on the East Coast […] one of the major COVID responses [was] emergency air conditioning,” Norton explained, “we had people stuck in their homes.”
“Elderly individuals, a large part of them were already stuck” prior to the pandemic, Norton said. “And it was just this blind eye [being turned to them].”
The 2021 heat wave revealed the unequal access to cool air in the homes of marginalized people, and that this is a public health issue with deadly consequences in the face of climate change.
Climate specialists at World Weather Attribution say the Pacific Northwest heat wave would be a once-in-a-millennium event without climate change. They predict more frequent, severe, and longer heatwaves like this in the future. Those without air conditioning, even in places that historically have not needed cooling systems, will continue to be at risk.
“We’ve got people living in environments now that […] if we were still a nomadic people they would just leave,” said Norton. “Because they have a home anchoring them, they are living in these incredibly hot boxes.”
In response to this weather event, governments in the Pacific Northwest have made efforts to expand access to cooling.
Oregon passed a law that took effect in March 2022, which prevents landlords and homeowners associations from banning air conditioning units unless there is a legitimate safety concern — for example, if the AC unit were to be placed in a fire escape window.
The law also allocates funds to create a stockpile of air conditioners and air purifiers to distribute to eligible individuals during emergency conditions, such as severe wildfire smoke. The eligibility criteria, according to the law, requires individuals to qualify for medical assistance through Medicare, the Department of Human Services, or the Oregon Health Authority, or that they received any of these services within the last twelve months. They must also have housing that has electricity for an air conditioner or purifier, and attest that they can install the units legally and safely.
Washington state expanded access to air conditioning for low-income residents by allowing money from the federally-funded Low-Income Housing Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to be used for purchasing, repairing, or replacing air conditioning units. Previously, those funds had only been approved to help with heating.
The Washington legislature introduced a bill that would have expanded the use of air conditioning in adult family homes. However, it was referred to the Ways and Means Committee and it stalled out by the time the legislative session adjourned in March 2022.
According to Norton, local action may be the most effective approach to seeing real change.
“I think it’s state legislation that has the most impact — far more than even federal legislation,” she said, “although, federal leads the way for some of this.”
There may be room for the federal government to recognize and address the need for sufficient cooling in homes as the climate changes. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, does not mandate that Public Housing Authorities need to include air conditioning in their units.
Although Washington State has made LIHEAP funds available to pay for fixing air conditioning units, this service is not guaranteed at the national level. How the money is implemented is up to states’ discretion, and not all states allow the funds to be used in this way.
Increasing access to air conditioning units in homes is just one way of increasing thermal comfort on days of extreme heat. Norton says a more comprehensive approach is needed to improve housing conditions as a whole.
“You can install AC,” Norton starts, “but you got to have good ventilation on the house, you’ve got to not have leaky roofs and windows, right? So that [having the AC] matters.”
Taking a holistic approach to creating “healthy homes” has multiple benefits. For example, increasing ventilation in a home can reduce the amounts of Volatile Organic Compounds, tobacco smoke, radon, and allergens someone is exposed to, which can also improve health outcomes in vulnerable communities.
Norton is hopeful that climate-resiliency policies that improve access to AC and other complex approaches to creating thermal comfort in the home will gain traction.
“For agnostics about climate change, the climate-related investments in housing bear out on their own […] we are improving generational wealth,” Norton explained, “We may improve [the residents’] longevity. But what we are really improving is their quality of health while they’re alive and the value of their home when they pass on.”