Climate change study: Detroit heat wave deaths could outpace some southern cities

Detroit | Canva photo
Updated, 4:39 p.m.

Detroit is on track to suffer more extreme heat-related deaths than some southern cities such as Houston, Atlanta and Phoenix due to climate change, according to a new study published in Science Advances Today.

The Union of Concerned Scientists called the report the “first-of-its-kind,” led by the University of Bristol researcher Eunice Lo, director of science and policy and chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Peter Frumhoff and Kristie L. Ebi, professor and researcher at the University of Washington School of Public Health.

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The study looked into the impact that climate change may have on mortality rates in three warming scenarios (1.5, 2 and 3 degrees Celsius) in 15 major U.S. cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that Detroit would endure 1,372 deaths per 1-in-30 year extreme heat events if temperatures rose by 3 degrees Celsius. The number would decline to 910 deaths at 2 degrees, and 732 deaths at 1.5.

Detroit has a lot to gain if rising global temperatures were stemmed by meeting targets made in the Paris climate accord, according to the study. The greatest reduction in heat wave deaths would be in Detroit and five other American cities examined in the report.*

Detroit | iStockphoto

President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in 2017.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order in February that commits Michigan to the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of 19 other governors, mostly Democrats, who voluntarily agreed to cut their state’s greenhouse gas emissions to levels consistent with the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. It’s not clear how Whitmer intends to meet those greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Temperatures have risen roughly 2.4 degrees celsius per decade in Detroit from 1979 to 2013, according to the study. The Midwest region, more broadly, may see the largest increase in heat-related deaths in the nation.

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“Climate change is not only affecting far away places but also the United States,” Lo said in a statement. “As temperatures rise, exposure of major U.S. cities to extreme heat will increase and more heat-related deaths will occur. The United States has emitted the largest amount of carbon dioxide in the world since the 18th century. Immediate and drastic emissions cuts are key to preventing large increases in heat-related deaths in the country.”

Senior citizens are more vulnerable to the impacts of extreme heat. And poorer cities are less able to prepare for disasters than wealthier ones such as San Francisco, which had the lowest predicted heat wave deaths.

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At the same time that the world is warming, U.S. citizens are aging and birth rates are declining. The result is a national population older than 65 that is on track to climb from 15.2% in 2016 to 22% in 2040.

Dense cities also have more powerful “heat island effects” — the tendency for the urban environment to reflect and trap in heat.

Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia and Seattle “would see a significant attributable fraction of avoided heat-related mortality” if warming could be stopped at 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the study said.

“Our results demonstrate that reducing future temperature rise by that extra half a degree between the two Paris Agreement thresholds could provide substantial benefits with respect to heat-related mortality in the studied U.S cities,” the report said.

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein covers the governor’s office, criminal justice and the environment. Before that, he wrote about state government and politics for the Detroit News, the Associated Press and MIRS News and won a Society of Professional Journalism award for open government reporting. He studied philosophy at Michigan State University, where he wrote for both The State News and Capital News Service. He began his journalism career freelancing for The Sturgis Journal, his hometown paper.

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