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Hot weather can be deadly. It’s also putting a dent in the nation's economy and forcing new expenses on states and localities.
This summer's sweltering temperatures have led to illnesses and deaths across the country, but what often is less noticed is the devastating impact extreme heat is having on state and local economies, leading policymakers to write new laws and allocate thousands of dollars to heat-related issues.
Heat kills more Americans annually than any other type of natural disaster. Every year, more than 600 people in the United States die because of extreme heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the annual rising temperatures also are impacting the United States' economy to the tune of $100 billion each year, according to the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.
That $100 billion is a conservative estimate, according to the report’s authors, as it doesn’t include the costs of heat-related health care or infrastructure damage. By 2030, that figure is expected to double and hit $500 billion by 2050.
Productivity loss can present itself in many different ways, the report said: Construction workers pausing their work to take a reprieve in the shade or delivery drivers struggling to keep pace with their work in high temperatures. The problem is widespread. Of the 3,000 counties in the United States, only nine aren’t facing economic problems as a result of extreme heat. All nine of those counties are in Alaska.
Furthermore, 60% of counties are “losing significant chunks of their economies due to heat stress on workers.” Texas, Mississippi and Alabama are among the states facing the highest heat stress-related economic losses.
Texas alone accounts for almost a third of the country’s economic loss, according to the report. With its heat levels and economic composition–which includes high levels of outdoor work–the Lone Star State is estimated to be losing $30 billion annually due to the extreme heat, the report said. Without action and adaptation, that figure is projected to rise to $110 billion annually by 2050, according to the report.
The Impacts on Infrastructure
While the Resilience Center study focused on labor productivity loss, it noted that extreme heat can also render some infrastructure—including roads and runways—unusable, adding to the overall economic impact on the United States.
Driving around Los Angeles, for instance, you might see the beginnings of a tree sprouting from a crack in the pavement. High temperatures can oxidize the binder used in asphalt, resulting in fatigue cracking, explained Craig Shaw, the city’s Street Maintenance Division Manager for the Bureau of Street Services.
When water slips into those cracks, seeds may find a suitable environment to grow in. It’s not an easy fix, Shaw said, because the entire plant needs to be dug out from the pavement.
There are other heat-related infrastructure issues too. For example, when heat softens new asphalt, cars stopping at a stop sign can create deformities. If the city doesn’t catch it in time, the deformity will harden and remain for 20 to 30 years, until the whole area is repaved, Shaw said.
“We definitely are seeing an economic impact [of] these higher temperatures,” Shaw said in a recent interview. “Particularly now in Los Angeles, we're getting more hot days than … we had in recent history.”
In Los Angeles, preventative solutions include planting more trees to reduce the urban heat island effect, said Shaw, who works on the Bureau of Street Services’ urban cooling program. Last year, the bureau planted more than 1,300 trees across 216 city segments, starting with the city’s hottest neighborhoods.
Over the last several years, the city has also been rolling out a cooling pavement, which reflects more light than typical asphalt, and constructing shade structures in areas where there is no shade, Shaw said.
“We're trying to do anything to help the citizens have a more comfortable living environment,” Shaw said.
The Vulnerability of Workers
Across the United States, agriculture and construction are two industries that account for some of the greatest shares of economic loss, the report said.
Heat stroke, chronic kidney injuries, impaired executive functioning—these are a few of the conditions that can affect a person’s well-being in extreme heat. But for agricultural workers, these impacts can be especially devastating, said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns at the United Farm Workers union.
Farmworkers are 35 times more likely than any other worker to be killed by heat, Strater said. Many farmworkers are undocumented immigrants and geographically isolated at work, making them more easily exploitable by their employers. Furthermore, farm workers are sometimes paid by piece rates, meaning they are paid by the bin or the weight of their daily harvest, rather than an hourly wage.
A few states are leading the way in terms of protecting their workers. California has long been a leader in heat protection for workers, with state regulations that require access to adequate shade, cold drinking water, and preventative rest breaks. Oregon has passed robust protections as well, Strater added.
Those kinds of regulations are important beyond the agriculture industry, Strater said. Strater said she was recently speaking with a delivery driver who, while locating packages in the back of his delivery truck during a recent shift, experienced temperatures of 130 degrees.
“I think any employer and any state that wants to keep having in a functional labor supply chain, so to speak, whether it's delivery workers, fast food workers, airport workers that are on the tarmac, farmworkers–if we don't want these folks to get sick and die, we got to have some basic protection,” Strater said.
Molly Bolan is an assistant editor for Route Fifty.
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