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Climate and Environment

For Those Without AC, Heat Waves Can Be Deadly

L.A.'s downtown skyline is seen behind high tension towers along the L.A. river
Downtown skyline is seen behind high tension towers along the L.A. river on August 16, 2020.
(Apu Gomes
AFP via Getty Images)
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During L.A.'s August heat wave it was so hot in Irma Macedonio's apartment that she had to take a cold shower and wrap herself in wet towels just to cool down enough to try and get some sleep.

It didn't work. The towels dried out in indoor temperatures that never dropped below 90 degrees, even at night.

The 74 year-old has lived in her Boyle Heights home for the past 15 years. She used to work in downtown Los Angeles, but now she's retired and living on a fixed income of $800 a month.

Her air conditioning -- a central air system -- has remained broken for about a year, she said. And she has made multiple requests to the landlord to have it fixed.

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"I have fans, but those fans blow hot air," said Macedonio in Spanish. "Because I have high blood pressure it felt like my heart was going to stop."

The maximum temperature in downtown during the last heat wave was 98 degrees, but forecasts say it could reach 108 this Sunday. They're predicting some areas of SoCal may see the highest temperatures ever recorded.

L.A. County's opening more than 30 emergency cooling centers, with COVID-19 safety protocols in place. Still, Macedonio's wary of heading to one for fear of catching the virus.

It's a gamble, because her age and health condition mean she's both vulnerable to COVID and to the deadly impacts of high heat. She's worried about surviving the weekend.

Air Conditioning Is A Luxury

Macedonio's situation is tragic and scary, but not unique or unpredictable.

This heat wave is yet another threat that many people are unequipped to deal with, and a clear example of how people with less money are more susceptible to the ravages of our fast-changing climate.

The tools needed to survive our new reality are often unavailable to those without means, a large portion of whom are people of color in L.A. County.

An estimated 30% of renters in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area don't have air conditioning.

It makes clear who and what we prioritize as a society.

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"Air conditioning is definitely a luxury and most of our residents do not have air conditioning," said Favian Gonzalez, a coordinator with Strategic Actions For A Just Economy, a tenants' rights organization that's been advocating for Macedonio.

Gonzalez said there are a number of reasons people they work with don't have access to AC.

In his experience, landlords rarely provide it. Then there are the cases where units break and landlords are unwilling to fix them. That leaves low income tenants who are barely making ends meet without many options to cool down.

And the reality is that for people living on strict budgets, even if they do have air conditioning it may be too expensive to run. Plus, people have been stuck at home, and electricity bills are higher than normal, with many out of work and unable to cover the extra costs.

"There's a worry because everybody's home and their electricity bills are astronomical," said Gonzalez.

Who Has The Money To Accommodate Climate Change?

The larger scope of the problem is laid out in recent research from USC, which examined the vulnerability of different neighborhoods and socioeconomic groups to extreme heat across Southern California.

"Basically the richest census tracts have way more access to air conditioners compared to the poorest communities," said Mo Chen, a former Ph.D. student at USC and lead author on the paper.

"One area that stands out is the South L.A. area ... Compton, South Gate, Lynwood," he said.

Residents there have tended to benefit, at least in part, from cooling from the nearby ocean, making AC less necessary compared to other parts of the county. But as time goes on, the number of extreme heat days will continue to increase, making it crucial to survival.

"Historically they have a cooler climate, but as more and more extreme heat events are striking the L.A. area, they're also communities that are less prepared," said Chen.

The question becomes who has enough money to be able to afford to install, maintain, and run air conditioning. If that's even an option where they live.

The issue of extreme heat is compounded by the fact that poorer neighborhoods tend to have less tree cover than rich ones, which contributes to higher temperatures.

The city of L.A. is trying to plant 90,000 trees by the end of next year, with an emphasis on helping to create more shade in lower income communities over the long term.

With movie theaters, malls, and stores shut down, the lack of safe indoor space to cool off is also a complicating factor this year.

There are also more than 66,000 homeless people in L.A. County, with few options besides cooling centers -- which close around 7 p.m. -- to beat the heat safely.

"The human influence on extreme heat waves is quite clear," said Michael Wehner, scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

"Almost everywhere in the world we can say that climate change has caused extreme heat waves to become hotter. In California ... climate change has caused these heat waves to be three to four degrees fahrenheit warmer than they would have been in the absence of human interference in the climate system."

When asked if Macedonio could be classified as a victim of climate change he said, "She would be a classic example of that."

Potential Good News For Macedonio

Hours after we spoke, after a year of requesting her airconditioning be fixed, her building's management company sent workers to try and get it working.

Gonzalez is skeptical as there's been a similar situation with the elevator in the building. Management has repeatedly sent out people to fix it, but it keeps breaking down.

We'll check in with Macedonio next week to see if her air conditioning held up.

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