Triple digit heat in LA this Labor Day weekend — what that means for the most vulnerable residents

This Labor Day weekend might be the hottest on record in LA. Temperatures may climb as high as 15 to 20 degrees above normal. It’s being called a “heat storm.”  

New research from USC shows that many low-income Angelenos don’t have air conditioning, and more excessive heat waves are expected in the future. The study says heat kills more Americans every year than storms and floods combined.

KCRW talks with Kelly Sanders, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC. 

KCRW: What percentage of households in our area have air conditioning?

“We estimate about 69% of households across those counties [LA, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino] collectively utilize air conditioning at the moment.”

That means 30% of households don’t have A/C. Where are they?

“Those 30% are generally living in hotter climate regions and in poor neighborhoods. So first of all, we saw the trends that households in warmer climate regions utilized air conditioning more than, say, coastal regions. But within each of those climate zones, we found a very distinct trend where richer households … utilized air conditioning at much higher rates than poor neighborhoods and communities of color. So we found that the most vulnerable communities were neighborhoods like Bell, Compton, Huntington Park, Lynwood and South Gate.

… These poor communities don't have the same protections when we get these extreme hot days.”

The other problem is the “heat island effect.” Not only is there no air conditioning, but there are fewer parks and greenery to absorb the heat that's caused by the urban environment.

“Yeah, and this is really an exacerbating trend because what we see is a lot of our poor communities and communities of color are really concentrated in the most densely populated regions of the basin. And so you have this situation in which people that are the least likely to have access to air conditioning are also … more vulnerable because they are more prone to live in these urban heat island regions.”

The excessive heat leads to health problems, right?

“Absolutely. So a lot of people don't realize it, but these extreme heat events kill more Americans every year than flooding and lightning strikes and other climatic events. So this is a big public policy concern. 

So what we're hoping is that these data can really help policymakers disseminate resources to the neighborhoods that need the most. So maybe it's breaks in utility bills, maybe it's weatherization programs. Maybe it's the siting of more cooling centers in specific regions.”

Should people in this area get some kind of subsidy to install air conditioning?

“There's a diversity of policy levers that we can look at. … Are people's homes equipped to basically trap the cooling, right? So if houses aren't weatherized, if there's not proper energy efficiency interventions put into these homes, the air conditioning can get quite expensive. So I think the solutions are multifold. … We need strong building codes. We really need to get lower income communities better weatherization of their homes. And then yeah, we probably need to do some work on the utility side and perhaps get programs in place that can get people access to the cooling infrastructure to begin with.”

Although more people with A/C means more emission of CO2, which exacerbates climate change. 

“Yeah, so this issue is really underscoring this inherent tension that sometimes exists between climate change mitigation intervention. So those are the programs that try to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and then climate change adaptation inventions. So those interventions that help us become comfortable in a warmer world. 

And this is a case where air conditioning is actually a matter of public health. But at the same time, that's also a very large driver of our residential energy consumption. So we really have to figure out how to balance these priorities, and really how to clean up the grids such that our electricity usage isn't as tied to greenhouse gas emissions.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Nihar Patel



  • Kelly Sanders - professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC