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Giving heat waves names and strength ratings, as is done with typhoons and hurricanes, could drive home the spiking danger from a threat that kills more people in the United States each year than storms and floods but rarely hits headlines, heat experts said on Tuesday.

“People do not understand this risk and we need to change that,” said Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Washington-based Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which works to cut climate change, migration and security risks.

With 2020 set to be one of the hottest years on record, in a long string of them, “extreme heat is or will be felt by everyone, everywhere, at some point. We have to build awareness to this invisible threat,” she told an online event.

The push to name heat waves is backed by the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance (EHRA), a new coalition of 30 big-city mayors and insurance officials, as well as health, climate change and policy experts from around the globe.

Unlike floods or storms, heat waves are largely an unseen risk, with many deaths occurring inside homes and losses apparent only when “excess deaths” above normal rates of mortality are examined, public health researchers say.

Heat deaths can occur from dehydration, heatstroke, kidney failure or as existing health problems are aggravated, the World Health Organization says.

Assigning heat waves names and risk ratings could help people better understand the scale of the threat as climate change brings more extreme heat, EHRA members said.

People cool off in the waters of the Danube river in Belgrade on Saturday as Serbia endures a heat wave. | AFP-JIJI
People cool off in the waters of the Danube river in Belgrade on Saturday as Serbia endures a heat wave. | AFP-JIJI

A report published on Monday by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research found that by the end of the century, heat deaths globally could nearly equal those from all infectious diseases combined today, if the planet continues to warm at its present pace.

The research, done by the Climate Impact Lab and based on data from 40 countries, found the problem will be most severe in the already hot tropics, in countries from Bangladesh to Sudan, where people may struggle to afford adequate cooling.

Large parts of the world — from Japan to the Middle East to Siberia and Australia — have seen fast-worsening heat waves in recent years.

At Tuesday’s event, Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis said his city was one of those most at risk from extreme heat in Europe, and was likely to see the tourism it depends on slashed as summer heat waves grow.

He described rising heat as “one of our city’s greatest challenges.”

Mayor Francis Suarez of Miami similarly said his city could see the number of 40 C (104 F) days each year more than double to 100 by 2050, bringing stronger hurricanes from warmer seas and more mosquito-driven disease threats.

In cities like India’s Chennai, where the seasons are already “hot, hotter and hottest,” soaring temperatures could undermine food and water security for the poor, said Krishna Mohan, Chennai’s chief resilience officer.

Finding ways to counter heat wave risks, from providing heat insurance to expanding access to affordable cooling, will be crucial to protect the 3.5 billion people expected to be hit by deadly heat waves by mid-century, the new alliance noted.

Almost half of those at risk — 1.6 billion people — are in cities, EHRA members said.

Ricardo Lara, California’s insurance commissioner, said heat was a particular problem for the poor who lack air conditioning and access to green spaces.

He remembers growing up in East Los Angeles and sleeping out on his home’s porch on hot nights, in an effort to stay cool. Now he worries job losses due to COVID-19 could leave many people unable to pay for cooling as summer temperatures spike.

“Heat waves are a risk that has never been fully recognized but one we are currently living with,” he said.

Julie Arrighi, a heat specialist based in Uganda for the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, said efforts to deal with heat often faced “woeful underfunding” because the issue was not widely acknowledged.

Author Jeff Goodell, a senior fellow at the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which is based at the Atlantic Council, said the lack of broad public concern about increasingly deadly heat was remarkable.

Extreme heat is “going to cause death and migration,” he warned. “What strikes me is how little we understand this, and how large the implications of this are.”

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