As extreme heat sweeps the U.S., Biden warns that states must act to protect workers
President Joe Biden speaks during an event on extreme heat July 27, 2023, in Washington, D.C. During the event Biden announced additional actions to protect communities from the effects of extreme heat. On the monitor in the background is Mayor Kate Gallego of Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
With many parts of the country gripped by extreme heat, President Joe Biden said Thursday his administration would target states that don’t offer workers heat protections and would direct millions of dollars to water projects and improved weather forecasting.
In a live address, with the mayors of Phoenix and San Antonio joining by video, Biden said summer heat waves are affecting more than 100 million Americans. The record heat, smoke from wildfires and other natural disasters make it impossible to deny that the climate is changing, Biden said, calling the climate crisis “an existential threat.”
“Even those places that are used to extreme heat have never seen it hot as it is now for as long as it’s been,” Biden said. “Even those who deny that we’re in the midst of a climate crisis can’t deny the impact extreme heat is having on Americans.”
Scientists say it’s impossible to trace any particular weather event to human-caused climate change, but the trend — the past eight years are the eight hottest years on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization, with 2023 on pace to become the hottest ever — is undeniably linked to a changing climate.
Biden said he has asked acting Labor Secretary Julie Su to step up enforcement and inspections in industries such as agriculture and construction where workers are outside and at higher risk of heat-related problems.
Biden also directed the Labor Department to issue a heat hazard alert that clarifies the legal protections workers have under federal law to protect themselves from heat exposure.
“We should be protecting workers from hazardous conditions, and we will,” he said.
States that don’t offer their own heat protections for workers would see Biden “calling them out,” the president said. Some states don’t even require that workers are provided water breaks, which is “outrageous,” Biden said.
Federal dollars available
Biden listed federal resources that have been spent or are available to address issues caused by heat.
The Interior Department will also spend $152 million from the 2021 infrastructure law to build water storage facilities and improve climate resiliency in Colorado, Washington and California.
And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will spend $7 million from Democrats’ 2022 climate, tax and social policy law to improve weather forecasting.
Biden also outlined longer term actions he’s supported, including provisions in laws he championed that provide aid to local governments.
The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief and stimulus law that passed in the early days of his term helped states and cities promote energy efficiency and open cooling centers, he said. And the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law included funding to upgrade electric grids to become more resilient, he said.
The administration is also offering direct aid to local government, Biden said. The U.S. Forest Service has provided $1 billion in grants for local communities to plant trees and the Housing and Urban Development Department has spent billions to make buildings more energy efficient, he said.
Biden repeated throughout the 20-minute event that the federal government had funding available for local governments to address heat, and urged local leaders to directly contact the White House if they had issues receiving assistance.
Phoenix on climate front lines
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego told Biden she was grateful for help from the federal government, saying that the current heat wave has been difficult for the city’s residents to endure.
“Phoenix is known for heat,” Gallego said. “We have relentless summer heat followed by beautiful months of weather.
“But right now, this summer has really been unprecedented … In Phoenix, it’s taking a real toll on our community. We feel like we are very much on the front lines of climate change.”
Congress should let the president declare a heat disaster, Gallego said. That could unleash more aid from the federal government, including from Federal Emergency Management Administration grant programs, she said.
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