homeless man in phoenix drinks water

Rick White drinks water while cooling down in his tent in a section of the "The Zone, the largest homeless encampment in Phoenix, Arizona, amid the city's worst heatwave on record on July 25, 2023.

(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Bowman, Bush, and Tlaib Lead Call for House Action to Protect People From Deadly Heat

"We have a duty to take decisive action that achieves both short-term relief and addresses systemic causes of the climate emergency fueling the heatwaves."

With about a third of Americans facing potentially dangerous hot temperatures on Thursday, over two dozen Democratic lawmakers wrote to House of Representatives leadership to demand short- and long-term legislative action on deadly heat.

"We write with deep concern about the impacts of this summer's relentless heatwave that endangers the lives of millions of people across our country without access to electricity, water, and other basic utility services," they wrote to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). "We have a duty to take decisive action that achieves both short-term relief and addresses systemic causes of the climate emergency fueling the heatwaves."

The legislators—led by progressive Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—called for an emergency package that creates a national heat-related moratorium on utility shutoffs, assists low-income households, and establishes cooling centers and drinking water facilities for at-risk people, "especially unhoused populations, laborers (including farmworkers, construction workers, delivery and postal workers), migrants, elderly, and low-wealth communities."

"Last year, Reps. Bush, Tlaib, and Bowman introduced a resolution that recognizes access to electricity, water, broadband, and other utility services as a human right," the letter notes. "Despite this and the increasingly precarious and often fatal consequences of disconnections during heatwaves, only 20 jurisdictions offer heat-based moratoria on electricity disconnections compared to the 41 that do so for cold temperatures."

"The extreme heat emergency pummeling the country has resulted in widespread public health impacts, from heat stroke to respiratory distress and even death."

As for the long-term fixes, they advocated for a permanent ban on utility shutoffs year-round, a phaseout of fossil fuels that are driving the climate emergency, and funding for "distributed renewable energy systems and climate-resilient, affordable public water systems."

"The extreme heat emergency pummeling the country has resulted in widespread public health impacts, from heat stroke to respiratory distress and even death," the Democrats stressed, pointing to recent deaths and conditions in the communities represented by the letters' leaders. "In urban cities like St. Louis, New York City, and Detroit, city infrastructure is largely made up of asphalt, concrete, and metal—materials which trap heat and create the 'urban heat island' effect."

"The danger of extreme heat cannot be overstated; just in the past 30 years, heat exposure has killed more people in the U.S. than any other weather-related event, including floods, cold weather, and hurricanes combined," the letter says. "Alarmingly, these heatwaves disproportionately harm people without homes; low-income households; disabled individuals; and Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities."

"The legacy of racist redlining has not only concentrated these groups in housing that is costlier to cool and provide water to, due to leakier plumbing and outdated fixtures, but redlining has also deprived these neighborhoods of tree cover, green space, public water fountains, and other public sources of relief from extreme heat," the letter continues. "These communities are more likely to suffer from elevated levels of illness that extreme heat and dehydration can exacerbate, like heart and respiratory diseases."

The lawmakers' demands were endorsed by multiple advocacy groups across the United States, including the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Food & Water Watch (FWW), National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC), and PODER, whose director, Susana Almanza, said that "in Texas, the heat is unbearable, people are suffering, and others are dying. Our humanity must override corporate greed, no one should have their electricity or water shut off."

Gaby Sarri-Tobar, an energy justice campaigner at CBD, said heat-related deaths this summer "prove that access to electricity and other utilities is a matter of life or death," and that cutting off households is "a brutal practice and it has to end."

"To get to the root of this crisis," Sarri-Tobar added, "our elected officials have to transform the fossil-fueled, profit-driven utility system to one that's powered by resilient, just, and affordable renewable energy."

Mary Grant, who directs FWW's Public Water for All campaign, agreed. Congress must "act immediately to adopt these life-saving measures by stopping all utility shutoffs and expanding access to emergency cooling stations and public water fountains and refill stations," she argued. Lawmakers must also "address the climate emergency head-on by stopping fossil fuel extraction and creating a permanent source of federal funding to build safe, climate-resilient, affordable publicly owned water infrastructure."

NHLC senior policy director Eric Tars suggested that "Congress would never tolerate its own AC or water being shut off in the middle of the D.C. summer despite the fact that they've been running a budget deficit for decades, and what's good enough for the People's House should be the bare minimum for people's homes."

"Adequate housing is a human right, and that means housing with utilities that keep one safe from the elements, including the heat," Tars said. "And while everyone should be in housing, until they are, communities also need resources to ensure those living on the streets can survive as well. If the choice is between utility companies' profits and people's lives, we must choose people's lives, every time."

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