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Petition pushes FEMA to classify extreme heat and wildfire smoke as 'major disasters'


Here in Washington, D.C., we're getting what feels like our first really hot week of the summer - temps in the 90s and sticky. But besides just making us sweat-soaked, climate change is making summers particularly treacherous nationwide. Heat now kills more people in the U.S. each year than hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined, according to the National Weather Service.

Many who work on this problem say there aren't enough tools in the toolbox to address extreme heat. That's why this week 30 environmental health care and labor groups filed a petition urging the federal government to include heat and wildfire smoke in its definition of, quote, "major disaster." Jean Su is a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author on the petition, and she's with me now in the studio to talk about this petition. Hi, Jean.

JEAN SU: Hi, Sacha. Thanks for having me.

PFEIFFER: Would you explain what the benefit of classifying extreme heat as a major disaster would be?

SU: So under the Stafford Act, which is the animating statute for our Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, states are allowed to ask for major disaster declarations to unlock critical funding for, basically, activities that they can't afford themselves to handle.

So extreme heat and wildfire smoke are two types of climate-fueled disasters that have really crescendoed in the last few years. And FEMA has actually refused to acknowledge that they are qualifying major disasters under the act. So what we're asking for in this petition is for FEMA to actually change that classification, be explicit that extreme heat and wildfire smoke are major disasters. And that will help prompt states to ask for money for crucial, crucial services that they need on the ground.

PFEIFFER: So the main benefit would be more FEMA funding coming to the states.

SU: Absolutely.

PFEIFFER: We noted that the petition is signed not only by environmental groups but labor groups. Tell us about the labor stake in this.

SU: So, unfortunately, the communities that bear the brunt of the extreme heat and wildfire smoke consequences are primarily workers and low-income communities. When you think about extreme heat and who that affects the most, we have seen deaths rise in farm workers across the country, in construction workers who have been, you know, working on poles. And they've fallen off out of heat exhaustion - and not only workers outside but also indoor workers, like warehouse workers, delivery workers and even, to my surprise that I learned, airplane cleaners, who end up coming in after a flight lands to change and clean the plane after - so that the plane can leave. And they have actually been in situations where the airplanes don't turn - aren't on...

PFEIFFER: Oh, so the AC is off on a...

SU: ...The AC...

PFEIFFER: ...Hot runway.

SU: ...Is off, and they are basically in a heat dome of the airplane. And the labor unions who represent these airplane workers have talked about how they are fainting on the job. So, you know, if you really think about who is affected most by extreme heat, it's both our indoor and external workers.

PFEIFFER: Are certain states or regions that could benefit more than others?

SU: Absolutely. So if you look at farm workers, obviously, California and the Pacific Northwest, both for wildfire smoke and for heat, are extremely vulnerable to this. The Southeast and the South -- you know, we have heard stories of construction workers in particular really bearing the brunt and, you know, an increase of deaths there.

PFEIFFER: Most environmentalists, I think it's fair to say, have been trying to see if they can stop or reverse climate change. Is this petition, to some degree, saying climate change is coming; it's unstoppable; let's do what we can to manage it?

SU: It's both, actually. So on the one hand, we have to adapt to climate right now, and a part of that adaptation means saving lives right now on the ground. The types of measures we're asking FEMA to put in are super-common-sense ones that can save lives. So we're looking at cooling centers, air filtration centers and not only in public buildings but also in residences. So we need to actually, you know, arm our low-income homes with air conditioning. So many folks in the Northeast and in the South do not have it, as well as air filtration systems and insulation because poor communities often live in super-holey houses, which means that...

PFEIFFER: Houses with a lot of holes in them.

SU: ...Houses with a lot of holes in them. And we can actually plug those holes up with insulation, with energy-efficient windows - super cheap and common-sense pieces that allow the cooling to stay in so that it doesn't escape but to also stop the wildfire smoke from coming in as well.

So those are all common-sense pieces. The mitigation part of climate, though, is really important for this petition as well. And I'm a climate change lawyer, so that's where I come in the most. We have actually seen that community solar and rooftop solar and storage have been absolutely key to help these communities survive extreme heat and wildfire smoke.

And the reason is because with cooling, you need electricity. With your air filtration systems, you need electricity. From the Southeast to Puerto Rico, the families that have actually had rooftop and community solar have been able to withstand those disasters, keep the cooling on, keep the lifesaving medicines alive, and were able to actually survive these disasters.

PFEIFFER: So you're not giving up on trying to stop or pause climate...

SU: We...

PFEIFFER: ...Change either...

SU: Yeah. Absolutely, we are absolutely not...

PFEIFFER: ...To try to fix it.

SU: ...Giving up. We have to use every opportunity we can to input these clean energy transition pieces, which are kind of game zero and ground zero for actually changing our entire energy system.

PFEIFFER: That's Jean Su, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. Thank you for coming in.

SU: Thanks, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Katia Riddle
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
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