The Push For Federal Action On Extreme Heat | Crooked Media
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June 19, 2024
What A Day
The Push For Federal Action On Extreme Heat

In This Episode

  •  Tens of millions of Americans in the Northeast and Midwest are sweating through their first major heatwave of the year. Heat is the deadliest of all natural disasters, according to the National Weather Service, killing more Americans on average each year than floods, tornados and hurricanes combined. This week, a coalition of environmental, labor, and healthcare groups filed a petition to push the Federal Emergency Management Agency to start recognizing both extreme heat and wildfire smoke as major disasters. Jean Su, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity and the petition’s lead author, explains how FEMA could help vulnerable people during extreme heat and smoke events.
  • And in headlines: The first debate between President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump is one week from today, California Gov. Gavin Newsom says he wants to ban smartphones in public schools throughout the state, and Delaware state Sen. Sarah McBride is one step closer to becoming the first openly trans person elected to Congress.


Show Notes:



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Priyanka Aribindi: It’s Thursday, June 20th. I’m Priyanka Aribindi.


Juanita Tolliver: And I’m Juanita Tolliver and this is What a Day, the show where we’re wondering who is leaking the opposition research on President Biden’s dog. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yes. Yet another report of Commander Biden biting a Secret Service agent ended up in the Daily Mail of all places. Commander, I don’t know who you’re yapping to. You need to shut that mouth. In more ways than one. 


Juanita Tolliver: Oh, my. [music break]


Priyanka Aribindi: On today’s show. California is the latest state to call for a statewide ban on smartphones in schools. Plus, we are a week away from the first presidential debate and will tell you all the rules of the presumptive nominees must adhere to. 


Juanita Tolliver: But first, it is hot outside. Dangerously hot. Tens of millions of Americans in the Northeast and Midwest are sweating through their first major heat wave, just before summer even officially begins. The National Weather Service is predicting temperatures in the high 90s, but it will feel more like 100, and huge swaths of both regions are under heat watches and warnings into Saturday. Out west, wildfire season is off to an early start as well. Since the weekend, around 20 fires in California have already burned tens of thousands of acres in the state, and more are burning in Washington and Oregon. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Okay, that is not good, as we all know. Here in New York City, already getting up there. It’s scorching, not quite as high. And no fires currently, which is good. But ugh, it’s not not great. I know a lot of people will sometimes brush off the health risks that come with extreme heat, but can you explain for us just why it’s so dangerous? 


Juanita Tolliver: Plain and simple. Heat is the most deadly of all of the natural disasters, according to the National Weather Service. On average, every year, heat kills more Americans than floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes combined. Just look at last year, which was the hottest year on record and also the deadliest, according to the Associated Press. The AP crunched data from the centers for Disease Control and found that excessive heat contributed to the deaths of more than 2300 people in the United States in 2023. That was the most deaths in more than 40 years of record keeping. And in terms of heat, this year is already on track to be hotter than last year. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Despite all of this information, we still don’t think of heat the same way that we tend to, you know, with these other–


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Priyanka Aribindi: –natural disasters that you mentioned, you know, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods. And we also don’t see the same kinds of big federal government responses like we do with those other disasters. Why is that? 


Juanita Tolliver: Well, there’s a law called the Stafford Act that sets out how the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA responds to disasters. The law lists the kinds of disasters FEMA can respond to, but heat isn’t included. Now, that list is not exhaustive. For example, FEMA was activated to respond to the Covid 19 pandemic. Pandemics aren’t on the list either. Still, that lack of specificity is partially why FEMA has historically left it to states to handle these kinds of extreme heat emergencies. But a coalition of environmental groups, labor groups and health care professionals is trying to change that. They filed a petition this week asking FEMA to start recognizing both extreme heat and wildfire smoke as major disasters. To learn more about the petition, I spoke with its lead author, Jean Su. She’s senior attorney and the director of the Energy Justice Program at the center for Biological Diversity. Here’s our conversation. All right. So your coalition is arguing that FEMA needs to start treating heat and smoke the way it treats other natural disasters. Does FEMA have the ability to act unilaterally and start doing that, or does Congress need to change the language in the Stafford Act, which governs how FEMA responds to emergencies? 


Jean Su: So FEMA can actually do it itself. The Stafford Act, which governs FEMA, has the definition of major disasters, which is super broad. It actually says major disasters are any natural catastrophe, including floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, but not limited to those. And we actually saw Covid 19 as a perfect example. Both Presidents Trump and Biden announced that Covid 19 was a major disaster and asked for states to also declare them major disasters. But nowhere in the definition does it actually say infectious disease or pandemic. So this is a super broad definition. And FEMA just has to acknowledge and recognize that it is and say, yes, it is. 


Juanita Tolliver: So what’s the holdup? Why aren’t they acknowledging this? Why hasn’t FEMA historically treated extreme heat and wildfire smoke the same way it treats other disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes? 


Jean Su: So I think it’s a matter of custom and practice. In the past, FEMA has been used to these one off disasters like hurricanes and floods, and how they’ve been programmed for so many decades is to deal with those disasters which basically run through and destroy homes. And they are used to just building back to status quo. Like if your roof was thrown off by a hurricane, I’m going to come back and build it back. So that’s the way that they’ve been programmed for decades. Extreme heat and wildfire smoke are just a whole different ballgame now in terms of disasters, because the actual damage that you see isn’t to your home, it’s actually to your body. And I think FEMA has found that quite something new and not something that they’re used to. But our argument is actually the remedies to actually dealing with your body breaking down is not just medical services, but it’s actually building infrastructure like permanent cooling centers and air filtration systems, actually redoing your home, especially homes for workers and low income communities that are just poor housing stock and that are super holey. And so, you know, if you turn on your air conditioning, if you even have it, your building envelope is so crappy that the cool air just flows out. And if you’re in wildfire smoke season, the smoke comes in. So literally you can just retrofit that home and get the building insulation in, get the high energy efficiency windows, get your efficient heat pumps, which are also air conditioners, put in your air filtration systems. And so these are the things that we’re asking FEMA to do. 


Juanita Tolliver: And you mentioned proof of concept related to the Covid 19 pandemic. How do the recommendations your coalition is putting forward compare to some of the actions that FEMA took during the pandemic? 


Jean Su: So during Covid, the common sense pieces were doling out vaccines, doling out test kits, doling out respirators for hospitals in the very same way, we’re actually looking at doling out air filtration systems, doling out energy efficient air conditioners, which are heat pumps. It’s the same types of kind of instruments and mechanics that we’re asking to be deployed. There’s also another piece of this, which is the long term mitigation pieces, which we think are super important that go beyond these emergency centers, and that is actually making sure that residences and public buildings are actually hooked up to community solar and rooftop solar and storage. And the reason I say that is because extreme heat right now is actually frying up our grid infrastructure. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right? And we’ve seen that, for example, throughout the country, in Texas and in other states, too. 


Jean Su: Absolutely. And it leads to rolling blackouts. And the other kind of exacerbating factor is that everybody has their air conditioning on now. So the demand is high. Your grid is literally crumbling before you. And I’d have to say that FEMA is in this incredible position where they should be targeting those communities that are suffering from this the most. So our low income communities are communities of color, are work communities who don’t have the upfront capital to install rooftop solar, for example, but who should be targeted first because they are the ones who are bearing the brunt of the extreme heat consequences and the wildfire smoke consequences. 


Juanita Tolliver: And how has climate change increased the risks associated with the heat? 


Jean Su: One of the interesting parts to know about heat is this measure called heat index. And so it’s temperature, but it’s also humidity. And they pair this together. And health professionals who have also paired up with us on this petition have said that around 80 degrees, if you are working outside, it already starts to disintegrate your ability to function um in your body. So your ability to sweat and retain water is completely compromised and you basically start wilting away. You’re losing water at a rate that you cannot regenerate. 90 degrees of the heat index, where humidity and the temperature even gets worse. You are seeing even greater body dysfunction. And I think where the rubber meets the road is when you really think about those who died and those who have these long term health risks, you know, ground zero are farm workers, there are construction workers. There’s a very tragic story of a construction worker in Texas who passed out and died. You also have indoor workers, like warehouse workers. So, you know, workers in particular are in an incredibly vulnerable position here. And that’s why AfL-CIO, SEIU, National Nurses United and United Farm Workers all joined this petition. We have the largest labor unions with us, because this extreme heat and wildfire smoke issue is really a deadly issue for workers. 


Juanita Tolliver: And these events, these heat events can affect tens of millions of people in dozens of states simultaneously. So for agencies like FEMA to effectively respond to them, that’ll take an incredible amount of resources. What do federal and state governments need to do to build their capacity to better respond to these types of extreme heat events, and to convey to FEMA how these events currently fully overwhelm their existing resources at the state level. 


Jean Su: So we’ve been talking to many local governments and state governments who I mean, to be honest, this is such a unique type of disaster that even they are trying to wrap their minds around. What is the best planning strategy to make this happen? So if you are talking about cooling centers, for example, where to place those is absolutely important. Where you can place it, where somebody can actually walk to it, it’s walkable and it’s in the most vulnerable communities. So around farm areas, around low income communities, how many do you need in a certain radius that people can just walk to it and be safe? And what you know, states and local governments have told us is that they need money for planning. They actually need to do the surveys and figure out where people are living, and then they need to figure out where to place all of these pieces, where to retrofit first. So in a lot of ways, I think that FEMA funding in kind of bang for your buck is actually getting these planning services off the ground ASAP with professionals who actually understand what types of mitigation measures and emergency measures need to be put in place. Extreme heat is like the climate emergency in that people, if it’s not so sudden, if it’s not so dramatic because it’s so slow as a killer, people don’t really care about it. But I think that’s exactly the point of why it needs to be tackled immediately. It’s the largest killer and the most silent killer. And that’s why FEMA and our federal government and every state local government needs itself to get in gear to really deal with this monstrosity of a climate emergency. 


Juanita Tolliver: That was my conversation with Jean Su, senior attorney and the director of the Energy Justice Program at the center for Biological Diversity. And folks, remember, don’t mess around with heat. Stay inside if you can. Take lots of breaks if you can’t. Drink lots of water. And if you’re feeling unwell, do not power through it. Take care of yourself. 


Priyanka Aribindi: That is the latest for now. We’ll get to some headlines in just a moment. But if you like our show, please make sure to subscribe and share it with your friends. We’ll be right back after some ads. [music break]




Priyanka Aribindi: Let’s wrap up with some headlines. 


[sung] Headlines. 


Priyanka Aribindi: The first presidential debate between President Biden and former President Trump is one week from today. 


Juanita Tolliver: Dun dun dun. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Brace yourselves. It’s happening, people. On Tuesday, it was confirmed that independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. did not have enough statewide ballots to qualify for this debate. Big relief there. And this debate is a little bit different than what you might be used to. First of all, it’s hosted by CNN and not the Presidential Debate Commission. The commission originally had debate plans for the fall, but both of the candidates snubbed them. There is a new set of rules from CNN for this debate also. But the biggest change is the absence of the audience. It’ll just be the presumptive nominees, moderators and the crew. This will be tough for Trump in particular who thrives off of a live audience. What makes this even harder, though, is the 90 minute broadcast, which has two scheduled commercial breaks, and during these breaks, campaign staff are not allowed to interact with the candidates at all. That means no little touch ups, no ringside pep talks. They will just be left with their own thoughts. [laughter] Juanita, why is that so funny to you? 


Juanita Tolliver: I could just picture Trump looking over at Biden and just talking smack and Biden being like, somebody help this person because he’s confused. 


Priyanka Aribindi: I know, [laughter] we need a camera on them during the commercial break. We need the footage. Keep them mic’ed. There are commercials, which is another shift from previous debates hosted by the commission where there wasn’t any corporate advertising. But, you know, this is CNN. They have to make money, keep the lights on somehow, and there won’t be any opening statements this time round. But each candidate will still give a two minute closing statement at the end of the debate. No notes or written prep is allowed, which is wild to me, and candidates microphones will be muted when it’s not their turn to speak. Both Biden and Trump have endorsed these rules, at least so far, remains to be seen what they say afterwards. Juanita, what is your favorite rule here? What are you most excited to see? 


Juanita Tolliver: Everybody on mute. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yes. 


Juanita Tolliver: A la Beyonce because when those mics are on mute, I can just picture Trump going off, arms flailing, mouth moving. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yup. 


Juanita Tolliver: And there’s no sound. The joy, the joy. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Truly, truly the joy. 


Juanita Tolliver: California Governor Gavin Newsom announced this week that he plans to work with lawmakers to ban smartphones in public schools throughout the state. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s board also voted to ban smartphones in its classrooms on Tuesday, a policy that will go into effect next January. This comes amid a growing effort by states to crack down on distractions in the classroom. Florida and Indiana already have restrictions in place banning phones in schools, while New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced plans to pursue a similar statewide policy next year. But beyond distracting students from their studies, there is also growing concern over the impact of social media on their young minds. Earlier this week, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called for cigarette style warning labels on social media platforms due to how they can impact young people’s mental health. Newsom said on Tuesday that he wants California’s legislature to adopt tougher phone restrictions before August, when this year’s legislative session ends. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. Listen, kids are not the only ones actually who could benefit from those cigarette style warning labels. 


Juanita Tolliver: Come on. 


Priyanka Aribindi: I think all of us could use that every now and then. This is a good move. I remember being in I mean, there were phones in my day. I don’t want to age myself that much, but for the most part, we were not allowed to use them, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to concentrate with that temptation in your pocket if you’re 16 or whatever. Delaware State Senator Sarah McBride is one step closer to making history and becoming the first openly transgender person elected to U.S. Congress. McBride is running for the U.S. House to represent Delaware’s At-Large Congressional District. And just last week, her primary opponent, Eugene Young, dropped out of the race. McBride is now the sole candidate running without an official Republican challenger for the vacant seat. During the Obama administration, she was the first openly trans person to work in the White House and has remained close with the Biden family. In Delaware’s State Senate, she has been a champion of workers rights, helped codify paid family leave across the state, and has strongly advocated against gun violence. If elected, McBride would also be the youngest elected official from Delaware, since none other than Joe Biden himself. It is a happy pride indeed over there. 


Juanita Tolliver: Truly, yes. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Love this for them. 


Juanita Tolliver: Love to see it. Thailand will soon become the first Southeast Asian country to legalize gay marriage. The country’s Senate passed a landmark bill this week that removes all gendered language from the definition of marriage, simply defining it as a partnership between two people. The legislation now heads to Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is expected to grant final approval. The law will go into effect four months after it’s published in the government’s Royal Gazette. Thailand will become only the third Asian country to recognize marriage equality after Nepal and Taiwan. And I love that this pride month is having global implications. Love to see it. [laughing]


Priyanka Aribindi: And those are the headlines. 




Priyanka Aribindi: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe. Leave a review. Congratulate Thailand. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yes. 


Priyanka Aribindi: And tell your friends to listen. 


Juanita Tolliver: And if you’re into reading and not just about Sarah McBride’s political ascent like me, What a Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Juanita Tolliver.


Priyanka Aribindi: I’m Priyanka Aribindi. 


[spoken together] And get your debate bingo cards ready. 


Juanita Tolliver: Every time Trump is flailing his arms.  


Priyanka Aribindi: While muted?


Juanita Tolliver: Who forgets their thought process [laughing] in the middle of an answer.


Priyanka Aribindi: Oh no. If a thought just trails off, if the sentence does not end. 


Juanita Tolliver: Because there’s no notes. 


Priyanka Aribindi: I don’t know if these are bingo cards. 


Juanita Tolliver: There’s no notes. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Or just drinking games, but either way, don’t drink to that. That’s dangerous. [music break] What a Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our associate producers are Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf. We had production help today from Michell Eloy, Greg Walters, and Julia Claire. Our showrunner is Erica Morrison, and our executive producer is Adriene Hill. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.