How extreme heat is driving a call for policy changes in New York
It’s only a matter of time before the heat overwhelms New Yorkers again. The inevitable discomfort for most of us is also disproportionately fatal. Heat waves are now longer, stronger, and more frequent. And with summer temperatures rising steadily, the effects of climate change on public health most directly affect people where they live.
In extreme heat, however, it is a small infrastructure that will save the lives of the most vulnerable. As heat waves become more frequent and intense, air conditioning is no longer a luxury, but a vital one.
The most important tool to protect people from extreme heat is an air conditioner. However, many people live without this vital device or do not have the means to pay the 20 to 30% higher utility bills to operate it. Low-income people, people of color, and immigrants are the least likely to have air conditioning and the most likely to get into financial trouble with their utility bills. In Brownsville and the South Bronx, nearly 20% of residents lack a source of cooling at home compared to residents of the Upper East Side and the Financial District, where almost all residents have access to air conditioning. This reality points to important policy loopholes that can be addressed by equipping homes through the state infrastructure plan and revising existing New York state safety net programs.
In this regard, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a federal block grant program awarded to states, has a cooling support component that provides appliances or subsidies to eligible households. However, given the warming climate, insufficient funding continued to be allocated to the cooling support portion of New York State’s LIHEAP. From 2010 to 2019, New York City’s cooling degree days were 30% higher than the 1980-2010 average, while heating degree days were 10% lower. As a result, there were more days when air conditioning was needed and fewer days when the house needed to be heated. It is critical that the LIHEAP program adapt to the realities of climate change and changing energy needs.
In New York State, cooling aid accounts for only 4% of the state’s LIHEAP program budget. In addition, the program is limited to the purchase of air conditioning for subscribers and does not help with paying utility bills. Research into heat-related deaths by the Maricopa County Department of Health in Arizona found the main causes of death to be lack of working air conditioning, disconnected service, and air conditioning in the “off” position (suggesting selective use ) of the device as a cost-saving strategy). For this reason, billing assistance and shut-off protection are important additions to the provision of cooling devices for the home.
To make sense of the New York State program’s expansion, there is a need to revise admission requirements, apply online, and streamline the application process to ensure people with proven needs can access help more efficiently. This can be done through auto enrollment for households receiving safety net services such as WIC, SNAP, Medicaid, unemployment benefits, and housing benefits. A report commissioned by the District of Columbia’s Department of Energy and Environment last year found that an online and streamlined program application helped improve LIHEAP registration.
In addition, a medical proof of need is required for the application. This is a major barrier for many who have difficulty accessing health care and for people who do not have a chronic illness but still deserve to be protected from the heat. We need to think about how we can enable people to access services by removing barriers.
Surely some will question the benefits of having a device that at the same time dampens extreme heat and contributes to higher CO2 emissions and is therefore part of the problem. However, we shouldn’t sacrifice the most vulnerable as we strive to tackle climate change. Insisting on energy efficient cooling systems can serve as a middle ground.
The weakest and most energy insecure New Yorkers need programs that subsidize utility bills to ensure they stay cool and safe at home this summer. The need to subsidize priceless summer electricity bills has been overlooked for far too long. The COVID-19 pandemic only made matters much worse. The number of New Yorkers who paid their utility bills more than 60 days overdue rose to more than 1.2 million people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The infrastructure plan will be implemented in the wake of an increasingly hot summer season with more heat waves and more deaths. In addition to the plan, we must ensure that low-income, elderly, and colored communities have the domestic infrastructure that will keep them cool and alive.