By Kyra Martin-Spencer
As hot days and heat waves become more frequent and intense in the San Diego and Imperial Valley region and across the globe, it is necessary to examine the causes and effects of extreme heat and, most importantly, our response.
What is extreme heat?
Extreme heat is defined as “temperatures that are much hotter and/or humid than average for a particular location and the time of year.” Record-setting heat in the past month has brought more awareness to this relevant issue. Earth experienced its hottest month ever on record in July. Scientists predict there is a high chance that 2023 will be the warmest year on record. Experts warn that unless mindful action is taken, the amount of heat days will increase and pose a threat, especially to areas without sufficient infrastructure.
Global warming is a result of broader climate change and changing weather patterns. Shifts in climate can be natural, but human activity has drastically altered the course of the Earth’s climate since the onset of the industrial era. Actions such as burning fossil fuels, manufacturing, and deforestation produce heat-trapping gases, a main driver of climate change. The average global surface temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, which may not seem like a lot, but 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) is the agreed-upon upper limit of average global temperature increase before irreversible damage results.
In the San Diego area specifically, there are three distinct climate zones: coastal, inland and desert. These zones have markedly different average temperatures and weather patterns, which makes it difficult to implement a “one size fits all” extreme heat response. Recognizing and understanding the definition of extreme heat and its causes allow for a closer examination of its effects.
Effects of extreme heat
Extreme heat correlates to more drought, higher chance of wildfire, worse air quality, agricultural degradation, and negative impacts on human health. According to San Diego County’s 2022 Excessive Heat Report, “prolonged hot weather can cause dehydration and increase the body’s core temperature, making it difficult for the body to function normally.” Heat-related illnesses include heat stress, heat stroke, cardiovascular/respiratory complications, and kidney disease. People with high risk factors for health complications due to heat are the elderly, young children, people with chronic health conditions, outdoor workers, and people experiencing homelessness.
How to respond
In extreme heat events, it is important to take care of yourself and your loved ones. Safety measures include hydrating, taking cold showers, wearing light clothing, staying in shade or air conditioning, avoiding physical exertion, and checking on people at high risk.
In situations such as these, there should be additional concern for the vulnerable. Catholic Social Teaching calls people of faith to always consider the needs of those in poverty. They are less likely to have air conditioning and access to sufficient medical care. Caring for the earth includes caring for the poor. One response is the fan distribution and cooling zone programs of San Diego County, which increase access to preventative measures against heat-related illness. While these immediate responses are vital, long-term solutions to address the root problems must also be pursued.
Climate change is a complex topic that may seem daunting, but even individuals can make an impact, and as Catholics, we are called to do so. Some ways to combat climate change include transitioning to renewable energy use, leaving a portion of your yard “wild” to protect biodiversity, eating sustainably, recycling/composting, purchasing fair trade items, and voting for policies that care for the environment. Participating in Care for Creation initiatives is a great way to work for climate justice. For ideas and inspiration, explore Laudato Si’ Action Plans on the Laudato Si’ Action Platform and consider creating one for your parish or family. To get started, contact the diocesan Creation Care office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Extreme heat is a threat to many facets of life, and a response rooted in solidarity is necessary to ensure health and safety. Our magnificent Earth is a gift from God, and humanity has not done the best job of taking care of it. In order for the Earth to take care of us, we must make every effort to protect and restore our beautiful common home.