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Brace for more killer heat waves, Red Cross warns

United Nations — Warning that heat waves are "one of the deadliest natural hazards facing humanity," the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said Tuesday that the threat posed by extreme heat "will only become more serious and more widespread as the climate crisis continues." 

The group's president, Francesco Rocca, presented a new 90-page action plan at the United Nations to help combat the negative impact of rising temperatures. The plan, entitled "Heatwave: Guide for Cities," was produced by the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center with over two dozen partners.

Calling heat waves the "silent killers" of climate change, Rocca said the harm they cause is both predictable and preventable. "The actions that authorities can take to save lives and significantly reduce suffering are simple and affordable," he said.

June 2019 was the hottest month on record in Europe, where countries like France, Germany and the Czech Republic suffered through record-breaking triple-digit temperatures.

Climate scientists are linking the Europe heat wave to climate change

"The U.S. has escaped some of the largest international heat waves over the past few years, but our luck is bound to run out," CBS News contributing meteorologist Jeff Berardelli said, adding that much of the United States is going to experience "dangerous heat" this week.

"A preview of extreme summer heat is developing across the nation right now. The big cities up and down the I-95 corridor like New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Richmond and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, will experience highs near 100 to perhaps as high as 105," with heat index numbers as high as 115 degrees, Berardelli said.

He pointed out that there's growing evidence of the role climate change plays in temperature extremes. "Scientifically, the link between global warming and heat waves is very direct and robust. Seemingly small changes in average temperature yield large changes in the extremes," he said.

In an article Berardelli wrote for Yale Climate Connections, he cautioned that extreme heat causes more deaths per year in United States than any other weather hazard. "As the climate continues to warm, that number could rise dramatically in the U.S. and around the world," he wrote.

At the U.N. Tuesday, CBS News asked Rocca about those countries that are not focused on mitigating the effects of climate change. He replied, "When there is a lack of attention to climate change, or denying climate change or the consequences… I wonder how it is possible to be so irresponsible."

One of the principal authors of the report, Julie Arrighi of the Climate Center of Red Cross Red Crescent, said the report provides recommendations for cities that have already experienced extreme heat, but also makes proposals for cities that have not yet faced serious problems because they may suffer in the years to come.

Rocco said the problems go beyond the obvious discomfort of life in hot weather. "This is a climate crisis of real global dimensions," he said. The devastating consequences of heat waves will include forced migration, food insecurity, and new conflicts. 

"I'm scared for the future of my son," he told CBS News.

The new report says that as many as 5 billion people live in areas of the world where heat waves can be forecast before they happen, which means there is time to take early action to save lives. The study focuses on the impact in some key cities, including New York City and Phoenix in the United States. The report also has case studies of Dhaka, Bangladesh; Prague, in the Czech Republic; Nairobi, Kenya; Surat, India; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Cape Town, South Africa.

The report includes recommendations for urban planning to help mitigate the damage from heat waves. Among the suggestions:

  • Building construction should reduce direct exposure to the sun in hospital wards, schools, offices and community spaces.
  • Hospitals should take steps to reduce direct sun exposure and increase their resilience to heat waves. They also need to prepare for a large influx of patients during heat events.
  • Urban Greening: Shade from trees helps decrease surface temperatures, and landscaping aids with water runoff during storms.
  • Green roofs — rooftops planted with vegetation — can reduce the heat emitted back into the atmosphere.
  • Increasing reflectivity by using white or light colors for pavement, rooftops and other structures, can help reduce the "urban heat island" effect.
  • Cool/permeable pavements, a relatively new concept, could help reduce surface temperatures.
  • Car-free zones and an increased reliance on public transit, walking and bicycles, could significantly reduce emissions of heat, pollutants and greenhouse gases.
  • Water services, such as installing or repairing drinking fountains and spraying streets.
  • Energy management plans should focus on managing peak electricity demand, work to incorporate passive cooling strategies in buildings, and ensure the availability of backup power for critical infrastructure.

The effects of extreme heat are gaining more attention around the world because heat waves are increasing. Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists who research climate change, says the data show cities across the U.S. will experience an increasing number of days of extreme heat in the years ahead.

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