Sourced from Grist
On a hot summer day in New York City last July, Ajohntae Dixon was studying at home when he began struggling to breathe. With no air conditioning in his apartment, the temperature inside surged, and the 15-year-old’s gasping quickly progressed into a full-blown asthma attack under the oppressive heat. He took his inhaler and then tried his nebulizer, but he was still fighting for air.
By 8 p.m., Dixon was in the emergency room. And after that overnight hospital stay, he and his mom installed air conditioners in each of their rooms to cut the chances he would have to go back.
“I’m not a huge fan of hospitals,” says Dixon, who lives in the Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point.
Dixon is homeschooled, but he’s an active teenager and a budding leader in his community. He participates in a “social circus” supported by Cirque du Soleil, where he has learned to juggle and ride a unicycle. He also recently joined a youth program at the nonprofit organization, The Point Community Development Corporation (more commonly known as The Point CDC), which raises awareness of problems in Hunts Point, from pollution to lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Another of those challenges is exposure to ambient heat levels that are generally higher than the rest of New York City. While Dixon was able to make it to a hospital during his asthma attack last summer, many others who suffer from chronic health conditions aren’t so lucky when the temperature spikes.
New York City isn’t the only place that’s increasingly vulnerable as temperatures rise. Extreme heat kills more Americans each year than any other weather-related event. In California this past week, triple-digit temperatures shattered records and caused tens of thousands of Los Angeles residents to lose power for days. And more than 50 deaths have been linked to a heat wave that hit Quebec earlier this month.
Thanks to the “urban heat island effect,” cities are significantly warmer than their surrounding suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas. And within a city like New York, a long history of disinvestment in black and brown neighborhoods means these communities are heating up the most. Hunts Point is one of the New York City neighborhoods with the highest risk of heat-related deaths. It’s also a place where 98 percent of residents are people of color.
“Extreme heat is really becoming one of the most dangerous climate impacts,” says Annel Hernandez with the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, which has made tackling the urban heat island effect the top priority in its climate justice agenda for this year. “While hurricanes and storm surge happen every five years or even longer, extreme heat is something that’s happening every single year.”
Heat-induced fatalities are entirely preventable. And with climate change threatening to increase the death toll, grassroots community leaders and city officials in New York are taking action. One solution is to beef up the city’s response to extreme weather events by providing ways for residents to keep cool and ensuring people know how to access them. But to save more lives as climate change makes the problem much worse, the city will have to undo decades of urban development that has put many communities of color at risk when the temperature spikes.