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Analysis

DEP Webinar Outlines Extreme Heat Resilience Plan

DEP Webinar Outlines Extreme Heat Resilience Plan

By Vince Conti

Lamyai/Shutterstock.com

The state Department of Environmental Protection this week hosted a webinar on the agency’s Draft Extreme Heat Resilience Plan. At its high point, 48 members of the public were logged into the event.

The agency admitted that the impact of extreme heat had not received its due during initial efforts by the state to define a climate resilience policy. The early focus was on sea level rise, major rain events and intense storm formation. What changed was a dangerous rise in temperatures and associated heat-related medical concerns.

The April 29 webinar ran its audience through a too-fast presentation of all that is in a complex report based on scientific research. As a tool for informing the public it might have failed by not being focused on key issues and on a concise understanding of the dangers of extreme heat.

What it did do was highlight the state’s concern about the rapidly increasing impact of heat on almost all aspects of life in the Garden State, including citizen health risks, harm to agriculture and the food chain, impacts on the state’s supply of water and infrastructure damage from heat.

Extreme heat was defined as periods where temperatures are above 90 degrees for two to three days minimum. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines extreme heat as temperatures “that are much hotter and/or humid than average,” leaving the precise definition to local areas where “normal” heat levels may vary.

The risk associated with extreme heat is that it is not often thought of by the public as a killer. Its deadly impact slowly conquers the ability of the body to regulate temperature, until significant damage may be done. Those most at risk, DEP presenters said, are children, the elderly and those with existing medical conditions that impair the body’s temperature-regulation capacity.

The CDC notes that heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable. The dangers of heat stress and the often associated issues of air quality are often less feared by a public that needs better education about the dangers of heat.

A major concern for the plan is the large population of workers who work primarily outdoors, even during heat events, with obvious attention paid to construction and agricultural workers. During public comment, audience members also pointed to delivery drivers and warehouse workers as further examples of individuals who often have to choose between “safety and a paycheck.”

A theme of the webinar was adaption to a hotter world. The state plan does not address prevention but rather adaption to rising temperatures. The world, and New Jersey, is heating up, and the process will not be reversed.

While the plan that was so rapidly covered in the webinar had numerous priorities and more than 130 action points, adaption often came down to some common-sense responses.

Air conditioning was presented as a major mitigating factor in dealing with heat waves. But problems abound, since many citizens have no easy access to air conditioning. Cooling centers become a critical strategy, one that is often the purview of local and state officials.

The emphasis on air conditioning comes at a time when the rapidly rising cost of electricity could put this option out of reach for some even where the equipment for it exists.

The plan, even here, has the problems often associated with state agency documents. A product of a 22-agency council in Trenton, it deals with issues familiar to and within the oversight of the agencies that have been selected for the council.

The Interagency Council on Climate Resilience does not include the Department of Education, so the plan does not speak to the state’s schools and heat mitigation. It also does not include the Department of Labor and what that agency might bring to the table concerning the labor force that works outdoors. It does not include the Department of Corrections and thus is little concerned with heat impact on the state’s prisons.

The plan deals mostly with the areas of jurisdiction of the 22 departments on the interagency council, and it deals with those only at the level of what state agencies can do. The views from the agencies that are not present are just not there. The all-important action points for local government must come later from local government.

In a home-rule state like New Jersey, a lot is missing because those things come under the jurisdiction of the 21 counties and 564 municipalities.

The plan does make the case for why the public should be attentive to the dangers of extreme heat and why the problems will get worse. It also points the public to the state’s website, Heat Hub, for education on vulnerabilities to extreme heat.

Still, the problem for the reader interested in the specifics of the state’s response to extreme heat dangers is that the reference is too often to turn to county and local government who were not involved in the creation of the state plan.

The 98-page plan will probably not be read by a sizable proportion of the public. The webinar, with its 30 minute run-through of all of the aspects of the plan, will probably not go viral.

But the plan shows that the state now takes seriously the dangers of extreme heat. Translating that into information that is accessible to the public and that speaks directly to mitigation efforts is a challenge still to be met.

Contact the reporter, Vince Conti, at vconti@cmcherald.com.

Reporter

Vince Conti is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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