Equity & Justice
When people are exposed to extreme heat and minimal air movement for prolonged periods of time, their health and safety is at risk. Depending on the intensity and duration of high temperatures, as well as a population’s preparedness and infrastructure, heat waves can cause heat exhaustion, heat stroke, swelling of the limbs, heat rashes, dehydration, and can contribute to blood clotting. Extreme heat is the leading weather-related killer in the United States, and heat waves can trigger heart attacks and strokes.
Although extreme heat events pose a threat to all people, they are particularly dangerous to older populations and children, as their bodies are less able to adapt to heat or handle the stress of high heat. People with preexisting respiratory, cardiovascular, diabetic, and chronic conditions are also particularly vulnerable, along with lower-income communities who often do not have access to well insulated housing or air conditioning systems. Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention also suggests higher risk among Black communities. According to the National Black Caucus Foundation, there were 50 percent higher mortality rates among non-Hispanic Black people than non-Hispanic white people during the 1995 Chicago heat wave.
In 1995, Chicago experienced an extreme heat event that led to the deaths of several hundred people over the course of five days. This event prompted the city to strengthen and update its heat emergency response system. Recognizing that heat waves are expected to increase in Chicago due to climate change, supported by the Chicago Climate Impacts Report, the city adopted a comprehensive set of actions to reduce deaths from extreme heat events.
Chicago’s approach focuses on community preparedness with particular attention to vulnerable populations. Since effective public outreach is a time and resource intensive process, Chicago worked with the Field Museum, a world-renowned museum and a leader in science education and engagement, to develop an outreach program that targeted neighborhoods vulnerable to climate change. This partnership engaged the local community to increase awareness of neighborhood vulnerability and identify how residents could reduce the impact of climate exacerbated extreme heat events. This outreach effort has worked to complement traditional disaster response actions that Chicago promoted after the 1995 heat wave.