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It’s So Hot, Congress May Actually Pass a Law About It

A handful of bills have been introduced that seek to adapt to more frequent heat waves.

An oscillating fan and the U.S. Capitol.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

What are we going to do about the heat? As devastatingly hot as this summer has been — and it has broken records and likely killed thousands of Americans — next summer will almost certainly be worse. Will Congress act?

New federal legislation to attack the root of the problem by reducing carbon emissions isn’t on the table, thanks to Republican control of the House. But that doesn’t mean there’s zero chance of any kind of heat legislation emerging this year. Republicans have proven open to funding ideas like better hurricane forecasting, the streamlining of flood insurance claims, and more seawalls — all things that get lumped into the category of adaptation to extreme weather or resilience. Could something similar be possible for heat?

A handful of bills have been introduced — almost all by Democrats — that seek to adapt to heat in one way or another. Because adapting to hotter temperatures isn’t as simple as erecting new levies, all the legislation seeks in one way or another to ensure everyone has access to a cooler environment. That might mean giving people money to keep their air conditioners running, funding cooling centers, or building shade outside.

Here are the bills, from most reactive to most proactive:

1. The Extreme Heat Emergency Act:This bill would put heat waves on FEMA’s list of major disaster qualifying events — making funds available for cooling centers and additional personnel. Representative Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Arizona, introduced the bill alongside Representatives Mark Amodei, a Republican from Nevada, and Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat from Texas..

It might have a better chance with Republicans than its counterparts because FEMA is familiar, says Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina and the executive director of RepublicEn, a project of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University that seeks to use “conservative principles” to solve climate change. The agency “butters the bread in conservative districts” in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida when disaster strikes, Inglis explained.

The problem is that FEMA funding only arrives after a disaster has already taken place. Alex Flint, executive director of the right-leaning climate think tank Alliance for Market Solutions, referred to FEMA funding and emergency supplemental bills as “old tools.”

“We will see the need to address higher temperatures in the defense bill, transportation bill, farm bill,” he said. “But policymakers are only just starting to grapple with the near-term effects of this long-term crisis.”

“Things can get more expensive after the fact,” Amy Bailey, director of climate resilience and sustainability at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, told me.

2. The Heating and Cooling Relief Act: This bill, introduced by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and New York Representative Jamaal Bowman, both Democrats, would inject tens of billions of dollars into the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps low-income families pay their utility bills. The bill would also increase funding for cooling assistance — but it also hasn’t attracted a single Republican cosponsor, consistent with the party’s wariness about extending government assistance to low-income Americans.

3. The SHADE Act: This bill would do what its name implies and fund the creation of shade to attack urban heat islands, especially in areas that are low-income or have historically experienced discrimination. The bill has attracted 55 cosponsors — all Democrats.

4. The Preventing HEAT Illness and Death Act:Of the options, this bill is the most wide-reaching. It calls for a study that would identify the gaps in what we know about extreme heat as well as the public facilities (read: schools and prisons) without air conditioning. It would also offer $100 million in financial assistance to communities that want to adapt to extreme heat — installing cool roofs, creating more urban forestry, or making a grid more resilient, as well as training on risk communications — with the condition that 40% of its funding goes towards communities that are low-income or have environmental justice concerns. And it also calls for similar interagency communication on extreme heat that already exists for hurricanes and floods.

“It’s a perfectly reasonable bill that’s aimed towards saving lives on the ground,” said Alice Nam, press secretary for Representative. Marilyn Strickland, a Democrat from Washington state and one of the bill’s House sponsors. “It doesn’t propose a one-size fits all solution.”

“We need the federal government to respond with the urgency these climate and public health crises demand,” sponsor Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, wrote in a statement to Heatmap.

And interagency communication, Bailey added, would be an “incredible benefit” — helping communities access resources faster. Extreme climate events that cost more than $1 billion, she noted, happened on average every 18 days in 2022, so speed is key.

Markey introduced the same bill in 2021, which advanced out of the Senate Commerce Committee in a bipartisan vote. This year’s version doesn’t have a single Republican co-sponsor in the House — though its authors are actively looking for them, Nam said.

“It’s really hard to tell what is too big of a pill for Republicans to swallow,” she said.

Last Congress, the bill was introduced into the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Science, Space and Technology Committee — meaning that this time, either Representative Frank Lucas, Republican of Oklahoma, or Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Republican of Washington state, would need to hear the bill, and Republicans on either of those committees would need to vote in its favor.

Inglis noted that Republicans would likely take issue with the fact that the bill relies on a comparatively narrow set of funds and grants, in addition to the possibility that it could add regulations to plans to adapt to heat. “Conservatives are right to say we don’t need a U.S. Department of Trees for cities,” Inglis said, noting that Republican members would likely prefer for cities to lead the charge themselves — though he added that that still often requires federal block grants.

But eventually, Flint said, Republicans — even in the House — will come around to the idea that the government should spend money to fund adaptation to climate change.

“Voters of all political persuasions are going to be impacted by fires, flooding, hurricanes, and politicians will have to respond,” he noted. “The climate doesn’t care about people’s politics and will change the lives of Republicans and Democrats alike.”

Read more about heat:

The Most Notable Heat Waves of 2023

Will Kubzansky profile image

Will Kubzansky

Will is an intern at Heatmap from Washington, D.C. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Brown Daily Herald. Previously, he interned at the Wisconsin State Journal and National Journal.

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