World swelters in record-breaking heat,” “Extreme heatwave: Phoenix braced for record 19th day of punishing temperatures,” “Temperatures expected to peak in southern Europe.”

These are all recent headlines from the New York Times, the Guardian, and BBC News. Maybe you’ve witnessed the weather report maps turn bright red. Wherever you look, extreme heat is the story.

So how extreme is it actually? Three continents are experiencing some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded.

In the US, over 90 million people — or about 27% of the total population — live in areas that were forecast to see dangerous levels of heat. Levels of heat, and the danger they pose, aren’t just measured through how hot it is, they’re measured by what’s called a heat index level.

The heat index measure is how hot it really feels outside and takes into account both humidity and temperature levels. The official danger zone, according to the US scientific agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is between 39.4-51.6 degrees Celsius (103-125F).

In the Middle East, at Persian Gulf International Airport on Iran's southwestern coast, a heat index of 66.7 degrees Celsius (152F) — conditions beyond what scientists have said humans can withstand — was recorded on July 16.

Over in China, a record for all-time highest temperature was broken on the same day when the mercury hit 52.2 degrees Celsius (126F) in its western Xinjiang region.

In Europe, so hellish is the heat that they’ve started naming the heatwave cycles after characters from Greek mythology. Cerberus — the name given to the heatwave that swept across southern Europe — was named after the three-headed hound of Hades that guards the gates of the Underworld. Charon, the heatwave currently affecting parts of Italy and southern Europe with temperatures as high as 48.8 degrees Celsius (119.8F), is named after the boatman of Hades, who carries the souls of those who never underwent funeral rites across the rivers Acheron and Styx, which separate the worlds of the dead and the living.

Worse still, this year's will be the coldest summer for the rest of our lives, according to NASA scientist, Peter Kalmus.

But despite all of this global media coverage of the record-smashing heat that has engulfed the Northern Hemisphere, there are some nuances that are missing. Behind the stories of the mercury rising lie stories of inequality that underline the severity of extreme temperatures’ impacts on marginalized communities. While aptly named Cerberus and Charon, the line between hell on Earth and current lived realities is less robust for some than it is for others. 

Extreme heat is a global issue. Yet, in our deeply unequal world, global crises have wildly unequal effects. As writer and organizer, Andrew Lee, writes for the Anti-Racism Daily: “A rising tide may lift all boats, but those closest to the shore drown first. There are some for whom climate catastrophe is a cause for hand-wringing concern about their hypothetical grandchildren’s living standards. There are others for whom the crisis arrived years ago.” 

Indeed, as anyone living in India, Pakistan, on the African continent, the Philippines, or many other climate-vulnerable countries will tell you, climate change has been here for years. It also just so happens that these are some of the nations who have contributed the least to the climate crisis. A legacy of colonial exploitation, cycles of inescapable and crushing debt, and ideological imperialism have impoverished the Global South, meaning these nations are less equipped to deal with the impacts of a climate crisis they did nothing to cause. 

But it’s not just in the big picture that climate change-induced heat hits people unequally. It’s on a micro scale too. 

In the US, Black and brown communities are more likely to live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty due to the long history of, what author Richard Rothstein calls, “a state-sponsored system of segregation.” These are the same minority neighborhoods from which investment was diverted away nearly a century ago. Today, these neighborhoods are some of the hottest parts of town, with less tree cover and more heat-trapping pavement. 

In Portland, Oregon, for example, neighborhoods of color are a staggering 12.76 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than white neighborhoods. In fact, a 2021 Nature journal study found that people of color were exposed to more extreme urban heat than white people in almost every major US city. 

This environmental racism isn’t limited to the US; it’s a global trend. In the UK, people of color are four times more likely to live in areas exposed to extreme heat, according to researchers at the University of Manchester and Friends of the Earth. In Germany, it’s the same, lower-income communities of color are disproportionately exposed to urban heat. In Paris, higher temperatures disproportionately affect the poorer migrant suburbs. 

If it’s not where people live, it’s where they work. People of color are disproportionately exposed to extreme heat through their jobs, according to health research organization KFF. For example, Latino migrant workers make up 75% of agricultural workers in the US and are about 20 times more likely to die from heat-related illnesses compared to other workers.

Meanwhile in China, lower-income workers who work outside have no choice but to brace for extreme temperatures. One report tells of a construction worker in Xi’an that died from heat stroke after working in the hot environment for nine hours. 

The heat also exacerbates existing challenges for marginalized communities. One such issue is energy usage. Extreme heat results in more people relying on electric means of cooling such as fans and air-conditioning, which, in the US, can overwhelm the grid and cause rolling blackouts and outages. And when the lights and fans go out, it’s in the homes of historically marginalized communities first. They’re also the last ones to be reconnected

All of that electricity usage also means higher energy costs. With the increased gas and electricity bills that many households are facing worldwide, an even higher bill is potentially catastrophic, pushing financially strapped communities further into debt

High temperatures also make living outside worse, directly affecting the wellbeing of people experiencing homelessness. Racial minorities experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate. For example, Black and African Americans make up 13% of the general population but 40% of unhoused people. The BBC told the story of one woman experiencing homelessness in Phoenix, US: “I cry all the time. I yell at the heat.”

So what can we do?

The first step is to understand how structural inequality affects who suffers the most from extreme heat and who can and can’t protect themselves. So if you’ve made it this far, you’re well on your way to having a better understanding of the environmental racism behind extreme heat.

But there are plenty of other ways you can help too, from supporting a local initiative that’s helping to keep communities cool, to helping to pay off electricity bills or buy cooling supplies on GoFundMe, to joining the movement to call for climate action on a global scale with Global Citizen. 


Defend the Planet

This Heatwave Isn’t Just About Temperatures Rising. It’s a Story of Environmental Racism.

By Tess Lowery