“Extreme heat is one of the leading causes of weather-related death in the U.S., and it’s only getting worse with climate change.”

Prophetic words from Jaime Madrigano of the RAND Corporation during yesterday’s Annual Meeting session on “Climate change, heat and implications for local environmental health.” She added: “If we want to improve the adaptive capacity for heat-related illness and death, we first have to understand who’s at risk, the reasons they’re susceptible and what the options are for intervention.”

Madrigano spoke about survey results from New York City adults that found 13 percent of the population did not have a functioning air conditioner and another 15 percent either never or infrequently used air conditioning. Cost was the most common reason for lack of cooling access, and the odds of not having air conditioning were greater for black residents. But affordability isn’t the only barrier to people taking measures to protect themselves from heat.

Only 12 percent of those surveyed reported going to a public place with air conditioning if they could not keep cool at home. It turns out that less than half of New Yorkers believe that heat can make them ill on very hot days.

“These results can inform targeted messaging and adaptive strategies to protect heat-vulnerable populations,” Madrigano told attendees.

Bob Perkowitz with ecoAmerica covered messaging about climate change and health with an overview of his organization’s communication tools for health professionals.

“As trusted messengers, health professionals are uniquely positioned to communicate the health impacts of climate change and become powerful influencers in generating public will and policy support for solutions,” he said.

He noted that a successful message is one that has personal relevance in people’s daily lives, offers proven solutions and empowers them to act.

“No more doom and gloom and dry climate science jargon,” Perkowitz said. “It’s about people, how it affects their health and what they can do about it.”

If people can receive the message, they can take action to protect themselves, like turning on the air conditioning or going to a cooler place when the National Weather Service issues a heat advisory. But if they don’t realize the risk, advance warning isn’t much use, he said.

It’s an issue that needs our attention. According to recent research, heat-related fatalities will drastically increase in 10 major U.S. cities if climate change continues at its current rate. These cities are New York, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. But when session presenter Kate Weinberger and her collaborators at Brown University looked at whether heat warnings are effective in preventing deaths in 20 U.S. cities, they unfortunately found that they weren’t.

“We have to identify what influences heat advisory and warning effectiveness,” Weinberger said.