The Science Speaks blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series explains focal topics through relatable analogies and asks readers to consider key opportunities, explore avenues for advancing gender equity and equality, and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
When I was a junior in high school, the drama club staged a performance of Twelve Angry Women, the variant of Twelve Angry Men with an eye towards gender equity in casting. The 1950s courtroom drama features 12 jurors attempting to arrive at an unanimous verdict in a court case. But a heat wave descends upon the deliberation room (which lacks a working fan and properly opening windows) and fuels an emotional fire. As is often the case, I can’t help but wonder how the story might differ if it was written today.
One possible difference could be the intensity of the heat wave impacting the women jurors. Heat waves, or periods of , develop when a high-pressure air mass in the upper atmosphere stops moving and, like a shield, traps hot air near Earth’s surface. While the exact conditions defining a heat wave (including temperature and duration) vary by state or country, as a general rule, heat waves are measured by comparing a location’s actual temperature to average weather conditions that time of year.
Heat wave intensity depends on many factors, including urbanization. Cities tend to be warmer than nearby rural areas due to the urban heat island effect, whereby the modification of land surfaces with heat-absorbing or light-trapping materials (e.g., asphalt or glass), plus vehicles and reduced vegetation, concentrate heat and prevent cooling. The fact that Twelve Angry Women takes place in New York City certainly doesn’t help the jurors’ predicament, so a 2000s-era version might consider a woodland setting if the characters have any chance of beating the heat.
That’s because, around the world, extreme temperature events are increasing in regularity, duration, and intensity because of the climate crisis. Heat waves exacerbate other natural disasters, and impacts may include crop failures (and resulting food insecurity), worsened air quality (high pressure prevents pollutants from dispersing), power outages (hotter weather necessitates more air conditioning), infrastructure damage (have you seen photos of roads literally melting?), loss of economic productivity (working in extreme heat is unsafe), or conflict (triggered by any of the above). But some of the most pressing consequences are related to human health.
Considering all extreme weather events, heat waves are the most fatal. Above certain temperature and humidity thresholds, the human body physiologically cannot sweat fast enough to adequately cool itself. Heat-related illnesses are wide-ranging, and are more vulnerable than others. The young, elderly, and chronically ill, as well as outdoor workers, low-income families, and pregnant women, are at greatest risk. Women and girls often suffer from confounding risk factors…and not because of an overheated jury room.
A pregnant woman, for instance, will suffer heat exhaustion or heat stroke faster than a non-pregnant person because it’s far more difficult for their body to cool itself. Pregnant women exposed to extreme heat may also experience preterm birth, preeclampsia, and poor pregnancy outcomes.
Then there’s the fact that women, gender-diverse persons, and LGBTQI+ individuals are more likely to encounter housing insecurity or homelessness—another risk factor for extreme heat exposure. Plus, women’s societal roles often involve growing food or collecting water in increasingly hot conditions; in this case, extreme heat may harm both their health and livelihoods. Finally, Indigenous women may simultaneously suffer from poverty, inadequate housing, and lack of health services, making them especially vulnerable to heat stress. Could a modern version of Twelve Angry Women explore how the jurors experience these challenges?
Fortunately, more attention is being paid to heat wave preparedness and mitigation. Solutions include implementing technologies to cool human-made surfaces or increasing tree canopy coverage in urban areas. Early warning systems, community response plans, and other proactive measures (like installing air conditioning in jury rooms) will improve resilience. In locations like , grassroots organizations are empowering women to make household decisions that will help their families and communities adapt to extreme heat.
The U.S. Government is mobilizing a whole-of-society approach to encourage collaboration in tackling the climate crisis and addressing its varied impacts, including extreme heat. This includes engaging with allies and partners through the , COP26, and other bilateral and multilateral forums. Federal agencies are helping communities and extreme heat, to anticipate climate-related health impacts and at greatest risk, and operating extreme heat projects that map urban heat islands are also underway and could provide interesting models for global action.
You don’t need to be trapped in a poorly ventilated jury chamber to understand the consequences of extreme heat. How could your community build resilience to heat waves?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a contracted Gender, Climate & Innovation Policy Advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI). Dr. Paris received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.