Extreme Heat

How Atlanta is dealing with the changing climate

By Lindsey Snyder

More people die in Atlanta from heat-related illnesses every year than in the entire nation from hurricanes and tornadoes combined. Temperatures are increasing rapidly, to a dangerous extent, and many citizens cannot afford to pay their electric bills to ease these impacts.

An issue intermingled with urban planning, the interests of natural gas and power companies, economic development, housing, and public health, the policy implications run deep.

As a result, there has been little to no action taken by the city or state, with much of the responsibility falling largely on citizen organizations, advocacy groups, and nonprofits.

2022 was Georgia’s fourth-hottest summer on record since 1929, causing nearly 60 deaths across the state. However, these extreme temperatures didn’t affect all Atlanta citizens similarly. The elderly, children, pregnant women, and people with chronic health conditions are among the most vulnerable populations to heat-related illness.

Yet, many fail to consider the impact of extreme temperatures on the homeless and low-income populations who do not have access to or cannot afford air conditioning. An estimated 310,000 people in Metro Atlanta are considered “extremely high risk” to this weather, as determined by a States at Risk study; this total is likely to increase as the region continues to experience record temperatures.

310,000 Metro Atlantans are at "very high risk" to extreme temperatures
Source: States at Risk

Georgia experiences over 20 days of dangerous heat each year, a figure that is expected to rise to about 50 days a year in 2050, according to data collected by Climate Central. This will cause a myriad of health consequences for Atlanta residents: a longer mosquito season, meaning more potential for the transmission of vector-borne diseases; increased cases of heat-related illnesses; respiratory difficulties; and more deaths.

These effects will be disproportionately felt by residents of cities, though, through a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect. Heat islands occur when there is significant vegetation loss that is being replaced by asphalt, concrete, and other materials that absorb heat instead of reflecting it, therefore increasing the overall surface temperature within the city.

“The urban heat island effect heats up cities by anywhere from five to 15 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Dr. Brian Stone, Director of the Urban Climate Lab at Georgia Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning and author of “The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change in the Places We Live.”

One of the most significant interventions to remedy this is surprisingly simple: plant trees. Stone explained his research’s findings that if you restore the tree canopy of a city, it almost eliminates urban heat island effect. The city’s government has considerable power over land use and tree cover, particularly with building permits and zoning regulations.

Stone particularly cited cities’ control over “how much canopy cover is required along streets, whether you can cut down trees on private property, and whether rooftops have to have certain reflectivity that cools off the building.”

Stone is currently working on a project with the City of Atlanta doing field research to map every neighborhood’s heat risk by measuring temperatures, how many deaths are occurring as a result, and how impactful it would be to restore tree cover in that area.

In addition, this study is evaluating each neighborhood’s “adaptive capacity,” meaning how well people deal with heat exposure, usually through access to air conditioning. Neighborhoods with low adaptive capacity — generally those more economically disadvantaged — have been linked to having poorer baseline health and higher rates of heat-related illness. Many of these communities in Atlanta are not being invested in, which has led to there being a more intact tree canopy, due to little development in the area. But there is limited access to healthcare and other services that are more readily available to wealthier populations to overcome heat stress.

“We need to be thinking of this as an emergency,” Stone warned. He explained further that we are past a need for sole focus on mitigation and that the best action now is learning how to adapt to extreme heat events. In terms of urban design, we need to build more shade structures, invest into cooling pavements that reflect more of the sun’s radiation, make the city more walkable to reduce vehicle usage, and most importantly, add more green spaces.

Bar graph showing the number of days of dangerous heat (heat index of at least 104 degrees Fahrenheit) per year in Atlanta
Now: 20 days
2050: 90+ days
Source: States at Risk

To better prepare for this weather, he said Atlanta should open more cooling centers for homeless populations and those who do not have access to air conditioning. There are currently 10 centers the city can open, a capacity amounting to only 1% of the cities’ population.

Atlanta currently has targets for emissions reductions through their Climate Action Plan, which pledges to bring our emissions 40% below 2009 levels by 2030, though these reductions only apply to buildings and property that the city owns, a small portion of Atlanta’s built environment.

“We need a comprehensive regional climate vulnerability plan and subsequently, a climate adaptation plan” said Dr. Jairo Garcia, former Director of Climate Policies and Renewables for the City of Atlanta and expert in climate resilience. He authored Atlanta’s Climate Action Plan but has since left the committee and has not seen any actions outlined in the plan taken seriously.

“We have the money, and they [the Atlanta City Council] are not using it,” Garcia exclaimed. “All I see are excuses,” he added.

Atlanta is ranked No. 3 in the nation for what is called “energy burden,” which is the percentage of household income spent on energy. Garcia has worked with Georgia Tech on numerous studies on energy prices and bills, he says Georgia has some of the highest electricity bills in the country. Additionally, he said, the people who cannot afford to pay are lower-income people and communities of color, the very communities being affected by heat the most.

Chandra Farley, Atlanta’s new Chief Sustainability and Resilience Officer, appointed by Mayor Dickens in early September, is willing to work on environmental justice issues, Garcia explained.

She previously led ReSolve Consulting, an energy justice consulting firm and was the Director for Partnership for Southern Equity’s Energy Justice Portfolio. Garcia is hopeful to partner with her office to craft more actions the city can take to help vulnerable populations.

Raising awareness about extreme heat is a crucial step, so that our city officials can make better informed decisions, he mentioned, “but we need to move past conversation and intentions to action.”

At the state level, there is little being done to mitigate or adapt to rising temperatures. The Georgia General Assembly, the governing body for the state, has few advocates for climate policy. Garcia does not believe our state leadership has our best interest in mind, as they have taken no actions to aid in climate change development.

He cited the need to expand MARTA, make the bike lanes system more extensive, and stop the corruption of Southern Company and Georgia Power in raising energy prices. “How many more people need to die, how much more economic impact does Georgia have to suffer in order for the legislature to realize there needs to be something done,” said Garcia.

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