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The sociology of heat

It’s not just the weather that’s to blame for deaths during spells of soaring temperatures. Social inequality and isolation play important roles as well

Olas de calor
People cooling off in mid-June in Madrid Río in the Spanish capital.Jaime Villanueva

The headline is familiar: Another hottest summer on record. Across Europe and the UK as well as in India, Pakistan, and Japan, ancient cities became nearly unlivable. Outdoor events were cancelled; subway cars became unbearable furnaces; and airplanes had to be rerouted when asphalt melted on the runways. China reported the worst heat wave in world history, which, combined with a severe drought, dried up the mighty Yangtze River. Even into September, parts of the western United States were still sweltering, overlapping with a wildfire season growing longer each year.

Spain, which also suffered severely, is a good case study. Temperatures reached alarming levels on 42 days this summer. Spaniards felt the effects. The Carlos III Health Institute estimates that there were 4,700 heat-linked deaths in 2022, three times the yearly average. From Andalusia to Catalonia, around 83 people were dying each day during some of the hottest periods.

The heat was just one part of a cascading catastrophe in Spain. As people sought relief at home, they used more electricity, squeezing an energy system already buckling from the effects of war further east. Wildfires also raged across rural areas, including some of the biggest the country has ever seen.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez connected the summer’s events to our changing climate: “Climate emergency translates into heat waves,” he said in July during a visit alongside firefighters to the scorched eastern region of Extremadura. “Climate change kills.” But global warming does not affect all people and places equally. Some of us have easy access to air conditioning and cool coastal areas. Others wind up baking in their homes.

Those who live alone are uniquely endangered, particularly if they are socially isolated

Age, social class and isolation matter. People most affected during heat waves tend to be older, mostly over 60 years old. Underlying physical or mental health conditions can put someone especially at risk. More men than women die during heat waves, because women tend to be better socially connected, with stronger lines of care and support.

Those who live alone are uniquely endangered, particularly if they are socially isolated. Individuals are less likely to receive or seek help if they are distrustful of their neighbors and do not have strong ties within their communities, or if they live in neighborhoods marked by disinvestment and commercial decline, limiting their engagement with other people in public spaces.

Ownership of air conditioning is part of the picture. Of course, those with access to technology to cool themselves fare better than those who do not. Yet it should also be obvious that not everybody can afford air conditioning in their private home.

Sociologists have long known that disproportionate number of heat-related deaths occur in low-income neighborhoods. People living in poverty, especially those in urban”heat islands,” are more likely to live in neighborhoods with heat-trapping concrete, sparse vegetation, and lack of shade, elevating temperatures substantially. The result is that residents of poor neighborhoods would also need to spend more on energy cooling their homes, since the surrounding area is hotter than in wealthier areas.

All the facts of such a social autopsy reveal a clear conclusion. One cause of disaster during heat waves is the weather, supercharged by a changing climate. But the other is social inequality and isolation, which determine who lives, dies, or becomes ill during periods of extreme heat. It’s hard enough to live in a hot century. It’s worse when your society is cold.

What can governments and societies do in response? In Spain, after the catastrophic 2003 heat wave killed nearly 8,000 people, governments at all levels drew up life-saving emergency plans for what to do when extreme heat hits. Official plans focus on information and outreach. Government staff will reach out to people most likely to suffer from the heat, and will direct them on how to cool down at home, where to go in their neighborhood to avoid the heat, such as cooling centers, or how to access medical attention when they need it.

City governments also embarked on tree-planting and greening campaigns to make low-income neighborhoods greener, and thus cooler. What might have happened this summer if Spain had not applied the lessons from 2003 is unfathomable. Even then, government officials cannot reach every single person vulnerable to the heat, especially if they are socially isolated, and differences in access to green spaces persist to this day.

To complement existing heat emergency plans, we can also enhance the abundance and quality of social infrastructure, or the physical places that allow social bonds to form. Public institutions like schools, libraries, playgrounds, and community centers are vital parts of social infrastructure. People forge ties with other people in places with strong social infrastructure, even if they do not set out to do so, because they participate in consistent interaction, and so social relationships unavoidably grow.

Since it is important to check on neighbors during an emergency like a heat wave, these bonds can turn out to be vital for accessing help at the right time. Bolstered public investment in shared spaces, including extended hours and staffing for places like libraries or community centers, could be key in helping people during the next heat wave.

In the case of climate change, offense is the best defense. We need to decarbonize: to remove planet-warming fossil fuels from our travel, how we power our industry, and how we run our homes. This is the only way to keep the world’s atmosphere livable for generations to come. The researchers at the Carlos III Health Institute sound a clear warning of what is to come if we do not heed the challenge: “Spain could see up to 13,000 deaths a year.”

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