Climate change, heat waves, and environmental justice: Advancing knowledge and action

Knowledge about climate change and the increasing number of heat waves in the United States has caused researchers and public health officials to recognize the need for new methods and tools to evaluate the effects of heat waves to better prepare communities. Vulnerable populations include senior citizens, people with certain chronic illnesses, and those who live in urban centers. Researchers have embarked on investigating new methods to evaluate, on a local scale, the negative impact of heat waves on health and what intervention mechanisms can be put in place to prevent such health effects. One intervention tool currently being tested in some U.S. cities is a heat health warning system (HHWS), a location-specific program based on local weather conditions. Such systems are intended to trigger alerts on extreme heat days that might cause illness or death. The purpose of this article is to provide a focused literature review on heat waves and environmental justice, as well as present a specific example of a multi-disciplinary approach to evaluating heat wave preparedness, intervention tools (such as HHWS) and sustainability issues in Wayne County, Michigan. The methods in this study involve using secondary data sources such as census tract level data, and land cover and land use data in order to highlight potential areas of vulnerability to heat, as well as show how primary data collection of spatially variant temperatures in an urban setting can validate the need for location specific heat warning systems. The results of this study will provide guidance on new approaches for understanding heat wave preparedness, including transferable lessons and tools for other cities and communities, and will highlight the importance of collaboration among academic institutions, government and the community to help mitigate the public health effects of heat wave events.