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The Local Government Approach to Extreme Heat

Updated: Jun 3

Summer is fast approaching. But, while the kids are looking forward to a break from school, some experts are raising concerns about the season’s weather forecast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expecting most of the U.S. to experience higher than normal temperatures this summer, thanks to an upcoming switch from El Niño to La Niña  climate patterns. 

Although local elected officials cannot control the weather, there are some things local governments can do to prepare for periods of unusually and uncomfortably hot weather, otherwise known as “extreme heat”. We implemented a survey of local policymakers across the United States asking about their perceptions of extreme heat in their communities and what they are doing to address it. The survey was funded by the National Science Foundation on a grant led by Dr. Olga Wilhelmi at the NSF National Center for Atmospheric Research, Dr. Peter Howe at Utah State University, and Dr. Mary Hayden at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. 

The results reveal a sobering reality—local elected officials across the nation are bracing for the impacts of extreme heat. A majority anticipate scorching temperatures, with some communities foreseeing disruptions like power outages, school closures, and productivity losses. However, the survey results showed that many communities have taken steps over the past five years to prepare for these risks, including communicating with residents about the dangers, installing cooling centers, and assisting with energy costs. 

Local elected officials' perceptions of extreme heat 

Most local elected officials expect to see higher than normal temperatures in their jurisdictions, with 77% of survey respondents indicating that extreme heat is at least somewhat likely to occur in their community this year. The anticipated impacts are far-reaching—66% of officials expect some chance of their residents facing heat-related illnesses like heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and dehydration, especially among vulnerable populations. 

Productivity is another concern, with 59% predicting reduced work output by people in their communities. Power outages from overwhelmed grids pose another risk to communities, with 44% of officials anticipating power disruptions during periods of extreme heat, which can affect essential services and local businesses. 

Furthermore, 30% of local officials expect their communities to experience school closures or schedule changes. This could put extra strain on families as they scramble to arrange childcare unexpectedly.  

These responses from local leaders underscore the multifaceted challenges extreme heat presents and the need for comprehensive mitigation strategies. In recognition of these threats, many local governments are taking action to address extreme heat and build more resilient communities. 

Actions taken by local governments 

While concerns over extreme heat vary among local elected officials, the survey results also indicate many local governments have taken steps to address this issue over the past five years. In fact, 73% of respondents said that their local government had implemented at least one of the strategies the survey asked about, such as communicating with residents, opening cooling centers, or providing energy assistance programs. 

The most widely adopted strategy, reported by 41% of local policymakers, is communicating with residents about heat risks and how to reduce them. A substantial portion (31%) have also improved or installed air conditioning in public buildings, like libraries, community centers, and schools. Similarly, 31% said that their jurisdictions have opened dedicated cooling centers during periods of excessive heat. 

Providing funding to help residents weatherize their homes or install energy-efficient appliances was reported by 28% of local officials as a strategy their community has pursued to build resilience against extreme temperatures. And 28% noted that their local government provides energy bill assistance programs to ease cost burdens for residents during heat waves. 

Efforts to increase green cover and shade, which can mitigate urban heat island effects, were equally prevalent. 28% of local leaders indicated their community had created more tree cover, green spaces, or shaded areas over the past five years. 

On a broader planning scale, just 12% of respondents stated that their community has developed a specific heat preparedness and response plan to coordinate efforts during extreme heat events. 

Challenges and opportunities 

In addition to asking leaders what their local government has been doing, respondents were asked an open-ended question on what they thought would be most effective to prepare their community for extreme heat. Many responses included the actions discussed above; however, some provided additional ideas to address the issue. 

Some of the respondents pointed out that improving the electricity grid could help avoid blackouts and brownouts, and a few mentioned the importance of ensuring residents have access to adequate drinking water. Additionally, an official from a large Kentucky municipality expressed interest in creating air conditioning requirements for rental units in their community. One official from a small municipality in North Carolina suggested implementing welfare checks of vulnerable populations during heat waves saying, “Citizens affected by extreme heat should be personally contacted on a regular basis to determine their welfare.” 

While these findings show significant efforts by local governments to mitigate the risk of extreme heat, addressing this multifaceted challenge requires comprehensive approaches tailored to the unique contexts of different communities. The most effective strategies may vary depending on several factors like population size, existing infrastructure, risk exposure levels, and even cultural norms.  

For example, welfare checks of vulnerable citizens may be a feasible, low-cost option for a small community but could be much more difficult to carry out in a more populous area. Larger cities and counties, on the other hand, may need to tackle large-scale infrastructure upgrades, such as improving electricity grid capacity or implementing building code changes. 

Ultimately, robust extreme heat preparedness will mean coordination across multiple fronts – public health, emergency management, utilities, planning, and more. Addressing this challenge will likely require local leaders to collaborate cross-sector to secure adequate funding and develop action plans tailored to their community’s specific needs and vulnerabilities.  

Additional information on addressing heat risk in local communities is available from the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (heat.gov). 


Survey Background 

The research underlying this brief was built on data from a national random sample of 515 elected policymakers serving all local governments (i.e., township, municipality, and county governments) with a population of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed by Dr. Olga Wilhelmi at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Dr. Peter Howe at Utah State University, and Dr. Mary Hayden at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, with funding from the National Science Foundation (Award #BCS-2314912), and was implemented by CivicPulse.  

Below is the wording for sample survey items used in the analysis. 

These questions will refer to “extreme heat”. By this, we mean periods of unusually and uncomfortably hot weather. 

How likely, if at all, do you think it is that each of the following will happen in the next year? 

  • Extreme heat or very hot weather will occur in my local area 

  • My community will experience power outages during periods of extreme heat or very hot weather 

  • People living in my community will experience heat-related illness 

  • People living in my community will experience reduced productivity at work due to extreme heat 

  • Schools in my community will be closed or school schedules will be adjusted due to extreme heat 

Answer choices: 

  • Not at all likely 

  • Somewhat likely 

  • Moderately likely 

  • Very likely 

Have any of the following actions to reduce heat risk taken place in your community in the past five years? Please select all that apply. 

  • Communicated with residents about heat risks and how to reduce them 

  • Developed a community plan for heat preparedness and response 

  • Created more tree cover, green space, or shade 

  • Provided funding for residents to weatherize homes or install energy-efficient appliances like air conditioners or heat pumps 

  • Engaged with community members or neighborhood community leaders on heat-related issues 

  • Opened cooling centers for residents to use during extreme heat or very hot weather 

  • Improved or installed air conditioning in public buildings, including schools 

  • Provided energy bill assistance to help residents afford air conditioning 

  • Other (Please describe) ____________________ 

  • None of the above 

Considering all the actions your local government could take, which actions do you think would be most effective to prepare your community for future extreme heat? 


Press Contact:  

Nathan Lee, PhD  

Managing Director  

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