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New Report Outlines How to Save Lives from Extreme Heat

A thermometer showing a temperature of 100+ against a background of an urban street

In 2021, Washingtonians experienced a week-long heatwave with June temperatures previously unthinkable for our region. Local governments and their communities struggled with such extraordinary heat. By week's end, 441 more people died in Washington than would be expected, making it the deadliest weather event in state history.


The 2021 heat dome portends the coming impacts of climate change. Potentially deadly heat waves in Washington State will only get worse. Significant work can and needs to be done to reduce the human toll of future extreme heat events.


Heat is a largely invisible and pervasive climate hazard, which makes it a complex and vexing policy problem for governments. Certain communities are more susceptible to heat: Infants, elderly, and people with pre-existing medical conditions, as well as the unhoused, marginalized, institutionalized, and outdoor workers.

Typically, urban areas are hotter than their surroundings, but even within cities, a person’s experience of heat can differ from one block to the next as a result of localized shade or access to artificial cooling (For a detailed discussion of extreme heat vulnerability in Washington State, you can read an open-access analysis by the University of Washington (UW) Climate Impacts Group in Urban Climate).

The scientific and practitioner communities are in agreement about which policies can save lives. Protective actions consist of both short-term emergency response (e.g., extreme weather warning systems, staging medical supplies and personnel, and operating cooling centers), and long-term risk reduction (e.g., occupational heat safety rules, building health care surge capacity, reducing urban heat islands through planting trees, building green roofs, and removing impervious surfaces).

New Report: In the Hot Seat

The UW Climate Impacts Group and the UW Center for Health and Global Environment (CHanGE) partnered up with the Washington State Department of Health, the Washington State Climatologist, and Gonzaga University’s Center for Climate, Society & the Environment to publish In the Hot Seat.

In the Hot Seat describes numerous potential strategies to protect communities from future extreme heat events. Each section summary identifies governing bodies and policy participants to effectively implement a given strategy, along with funding ideas, examples of existing policy in other regions of the country, and important equity considerations in the implementation of the strategy.


An example spread of pages 13-14 from the report.

The strategies presented in the report include:

  • Heat warning systems with community outreach,
  • Culturally specific cooling centers or resilience hubs,
  • Building codes and urban design,
  • Tree canopy and shade structures,
  • Improved access to household cooling devices,
  • Energy assistance programs for cooling, and
  • Expanded protections for workers. (In June 2023, Washington State Department of Labor & Industries adopted updates to its Outdoor Heat Exposure rules, including requirements for shade, rest, and acclimatization.)

Coordinated Initiatives

No single organization or institution is responsible for the entirety of the action that needs to take place. Heat spans jurisdictional boundaries and heat resilience strategies can entail significant tradeoffs with existing goals. For example, additional cooling infrastructure like shaded canopies or AC systems in new housing can increase development costs.

Collaborations across government institutions can help ameliorate these challenges by identifying new financing or alternative strategies to offer similar protections. In the Hot Seat recommends embracing this governance challenge and suggests coordination should span urban planning, housing, financing, energy, emergency management, and land-holding agencies (e.g., parks and transportation).

Resources for Taking Action

To facilitate implementation, the report also highlights several tools and approaches that can inform users of existing and projected climate and health risks and assess equity and potential impact of policy strategies. This includes:

  • Climate Mapping for a Resilient Washington, which compiles and curates the best existing climate projection information for Washington State, including extreme heat. The tool is integrated into the Washington State Department of Commerce’s climate guidance for comprehensive planning.
  • Climate Health and Risk Tool (CHaRT), which facilitates a deeper understanding of the drivers of extreme heat health risks within communities, with links to guidance to reduce risks. The tool was designed to provide useful information for short-term emergency management decisions at state and local levels and to empower local decision makers in identifying high-risk communities, understanding the place-based drivers of risk, and finding suggestions for short- and long-term risk reduction strategies.
  • Gonzaga Climate Center’s Beat the Heat initiative, which offers a template to better understand the local impacts of extreme heat in Spokane and position the city to respond effectively. The initiative consisted of a heat mapping campaign and community-wide surveys to shed light on urban heat distribution and individual’s perception and experience of extreme heat.

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About Zach Kearl

Zach Kearl is a policy scientist with the Climate Impacts Group (CIG) at the University of Washington. Prior to joining CIG, he was a policy advisor for the Mayor of the City of Portland (OR). Zach holds a B.A. in Economics from Lewis & Clark College and a M.P.A. in Environmental Policy from the University of Washington.

Zach is writing as a guest author.The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.