Don’t let the falling temperatures erase from memory the sweltering summer we just experienced. Throughout 2022, the United States witnessed some of the worst wildfires and extreme temperatures in history. This wasn’t just a coincidence; it’s a sign of what’s to come. Climate change is contributing to hotter and drier conditions, resulting in wildfires igniting more easily and with a greater potential of spreading. Wildfire “season” is becoming an increasingly meaningless phrase, as experts point to the year-round frequency with which they now occur. The Marshall Fire in Colorado, which started in late December 2021 and forced 10,000 residents to evacuate within 12 hours of its inception, provides a stark reminder.
California and the West were far from the only regions that faced blistering heat this past summer. New England was hit with record-breaking heat and drought. Thousands of cattle died during a heatwave in Kansas. A recent assessment on hazardous heat by First Street Foundation projected that a dangerous “Extreme Heat Belt” will cover a quarter of the country and roughly 108 million Americans by 2053. Furthermore, in the short-term, the model finds that 50 counties—home to about 8 million people—are expected to experience temperatures above 125°F next year.
Moreover, too many people will be forced to weather this onslaught with little relief—particularly people in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which have been shown to suffer disproportionately from extreme heat crises.
The growing frequency and intensity of extreme heat and drought are contributing to a range of challenges, including water shortages, crop depletion, and damage to aquatic and terrestrial habitats. Severe wildfires and other catastrophic weather events have disrupted local and state economies. Most alarmingly, accordingly to data from the National Weather Service, heat has been the single largest contributor to weather-related deaths over the last 30 years, ahead of floods. This extreme heat—and its compounding effects on wildfires and drought—threaten our homes, jobs, and lives.
To combat this growing threat and to mitigate potential risks of increased and more severe wildfires, droughts, and flash flooding, there are several options to consider. One strategy is to prioritize the use of nature-based solutions that we illustrate in our report, The Protective Value of Nature: A Review of the Effectiveness of Natural Infrastructure for Hazard Risk Reduction.
Nature-based approaches for hazard mitigation not only can be equally or more effective than conventional structural approaches, but they are often more cost-effective. To combat heat and drought, these strategies include watershed protection and restoration, green infrastructure such as tree plantings and green roofs in urban areas, and water conservation at a variety of scales.
In cities, which often experience the “urban heat island effect” of increased air temperature relative to surrounding areas, installation of pervious surfaces with vegetation cover can reduce localized air and surface temperatures and help replenish groundwater by capturing and filtering rainfall. In addition, urban forest canopies can keep localized temperatures lower through shading and evaporative cooling.
In rural areas, projects supporting beaver and riparian vegetation restoration, for example, can help store water and keep nearby streams cooler. Forest rehabilitation efforts across the country help safeguard water resources for people and wildlife alike.
While nature-based climate resiliency efforts are embedded within the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, more needs to be done. Despite recent improvements to pre-disaster mitigation and resilience efforts, there is still greater emphasis on post-disaster recovery rather than pre-disaster preparedness.
Policymakers should consider enhancing public-private partnerships and risk-transfer opportunities to address climate-related financial risk. The private sector, particularly the insurance and reinsurance industries, has both the willingness and capacity to take on additional risk associated with natural disasters. Organizations across the country have called for stronger alliances to shift certain financial burdens associated with climate change and natural disasters from government balance sheets to willing private sector participants. Importantly, public-private partnerships also increase community engagement and support. If leveraged correctly, these partnerships can shorten disruptive periods during disasters, improve the delivery of necessary services, and minimize the loss of property and life.
Whether we like it or not, extreme heat—and the impact it brings—is here to stay. Accordingly, federal, state, and local policymakers must find ways to incentivize climate adaptation and mitigation as well as ensure that every taxpayer dollar goes further than before. This is a critical issue that requires bipartisan solutions and support now, before temperatures rise next summer
Jessie Ritter is the senior director of the National Wildlife Federation.