SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As California braces for another hot, dry summer, state legislators are proposing legislation that would warn residents about extreme heat and rate its severity.
AB 2238 would create advance warnings for heat waves, similar to existing systems for hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires.
“We know that rankings and better heatwave warning will make people safer,” California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara told Spectrum News 1.
Launched in February, AB 2238 received a letter of support this week from a coalition of California physicians highlighting the health effects of extreme heat.
All-cause mortality increases by 8% on the hottest days of an average summer in Los Angeles, the letter said, with consecutive days of intense heat causing up to 30% more deaths. Seniors, children, and those with chronic medical conditions are most at risk, as are outdoor workers, those in low-income communities, and Black and Latino people.
“There is much more we can do to protect everyone from the heat, especially the most vulnerable,” said the letter, which was signed by physicians representing Stanford University, the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine and UCLA Center for Healthy Climate Solutions, among others. “We have been ranking and naming other natural disasters for decades because doing so has been shown to increase public awareness and improve coordinated responses.”
Advance warning systems for hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and other extreme weather events have long warned people and businesses and empowered them to avoid harm.
AB 2238 cites California’s “red flag” wildfire warnings and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s tropical storm naming system as valuable templates for an extreme heat ranking system.
Exactly how the extreme heat ranking and warning system will work hasn’t been determined yet, but Luz Rivas, a member of the California State Legislature and a co-author of AB 2238, said it could be a number system used in hurricanes, where higher numbers indicate greater severity, or a color system as used in fire hazards, with red indicating the worst conditions.
What kind of reaction those numbers or colors would evoke could be a mix of individual reactions, Rivas told Spectrum News 1. It could mean asking people to stay indoors, or it could prompt governments at the local level to deny to declare a state of emergency.
AB 2238 grew out of Lara’s California Climate Insurance Working Group, which he founded in 2019 after taking office. The group, which brought together insurance experts and environmentalists, found wildfires, flooding and extreme heat to be major climate threats to the state and recommended solutions to reduce their impact.
One of the group’s proposals was “to rank heatwaves to provide risk levels and more specific alerts to protect our most vulnerable communities,” said Lara, who pitched the idea to MP Rivas at the United Nations climate change conference last November.
AB 2238 is working its way through the Legislature as the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration says temperatures will be above normal for much of the state through at least July this year. California has already experienced some of the highest temperatures in history. In 2020, parts of LA County hit a record-breaking 121 degrees, while the Coachella Valley hit an all-time high of 123 degrees in 2021.
An assessment of climate vulnerability by the LA County Sustainability Office last month found extreme heat events are projected to increase 10-fold by 2050, from about once every two years to twice a year. The US Centers for Disease Control defines extreme heat as high summer temperatures hotter than average.
California law requires the state’s Environmental Protection Agency to determine the extent and severity of urban heat islands so cities can set temperature reduction targets. The state also requires the insurance commissioner to look at ways to reduce the risks of climate change.
AB 2238 would require the California EPA to develop a statewide extreme heat ranking system by January 1, 2024 and to submit a study of the costs of past extreme heat events to the Integrated Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Program, which is tasked with local coordination Efforts to adapt to the effects of a warming planet.
The agency would then need to develop a plan to communicate extreme heat rankings to the public with the Office of Emergency Services and other relevant agencies and organizations, and develop guidelines for local governments to plan for extreme heat events.
A companion piece of legislation, AB 2076, would create a Chief Heat Officer and an Extreme Heat and Community Resilience Program for the state to coordinate preparedness and response efforts and support more localized plans. Rivas said she is in discussions with the state natural resources agency to determine how the two bills will work together.
AB 2238 directs the State Department of Insurance to look at state and academic data on maximum and minimum temperatures and the duration of extreme heat events. It will also look at the historical health effects of heat.
“We know that heatwaves impact insurance, especially health insurance when people get sick and business insurance when we have power outages,” Lara said.
His office already knows that “people without health insurance or who are underinsured will have a harder time recovering from extreme heat waves.”
AB 2238 would allow Lara’s office to better understand the economic consequences of extreme heat, including its impact on emergency rooms, construction, energy costs, and liability insurance.
“These things are all connected,” Lara said.
By 2036, the average outdoor worker in the state risks losing six workdays annually to extreme heat — or $740 a year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists Too Hot To Work report released last year. This is impacting multiple industries, including healthcare and insurance.
Approximately 3.8 million people, or 21% of California’s total workforce, work outdoors. Construction workers, police officers, firefighters and those who work in maintenance and repair jobs on installations are most vulnerable to extreme heat, according to the study, with workers in Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial Counties feeling the worst effects.
With days of extreme heat projected to quadruple by 2065, outdoor workers in Riverside County risk losing 25 workdays per year by mid-century and 39 workdays by the end of the century due to extreme heat, compared to 9 days in the past, so the report. Imperial County workers risk losing 48 workdays by mid-century and 65 by the end of the century, compared to 18 days in the past.
Many of the California lawmakers who co-authored AB 2238 represent areas hardest hit by extreme heat, including Rivas, representing LA; Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, representing Coachella Valley; and Central Valley congregation member Joaquin Arambula.
AB 2238 has released two committees since its inception earlier this year. The Budget Committee of the State Assembly is currently reviewing the legislation, after which it will be submitted to the General Assembly for a vote before moving on to the Senate. If passed, California would become the first state in the country to rate extreme heat events.