Militant Journalism

Philadelphia’s deadly heatwaves: urban heat islands and capitalist inequality

During the third week of July, Philadelphia experienced its first extreme heat wave of the summer, subjecting the city’s 5 million residents to the hottest temperatures they have seen since 2012. Five heat-related deaths were confirmed as temperatures rose to a sweltering 98° on July 24 and 99° on July 25 — all while 1,200 households in Philly were left without any electricity to power fans or AC units. Heat advisories were set for the weekend urging residents to stay indoors to avoid heat stroke and cooling centers were opened up around the city.

Urban Heat Islands are typically working-class sections of the city that experience significantly hotter temperatures throughout the year due to trapped heat. This spike in heat can be caused by a lack of trees and green spaces as well as building materials like the concrete and black asphalt on top of the many row homes found throughout Philadelphia. A lack of air conditioning in lower-income housing makes the temperatures inescapable. The constant construction due to gentrification and waste dumps throughout the city also increases thermal heat and pollution.

A study on the potential impact of climate change reports that Philadelphia may experience 4 to 10 times as many days per year above 95°F, and as many as 16 days per year above 100°F by the end of the century.

As the number of extreme heat days per year continues to rise, working-class residents become increasingly more vulnerable to health-related problems such as dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. While not all of the neighborhoods throughout the city experience the same intensities, some of the hottest UHI’s in the city include Hunting Park in North Philadelphia, Point Breeze in South, and Cobbs Creek in West — all of which are predominantly working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods. At the same time, Roxborough, Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy in the Northwest, which are significantly wealthier and whiter neighborhoods, can be 7 to 10 degrees cooler due to the tree-lined streets and shady parks.

As rapid gentrification spreads through the city’s most oppressed neighborhoods, green spaces like community parks, gardens and trees that aid in regulating the temperature are sold off to greedy developers that have no ties to the communities that enjoy having them in their neighborhoods. Many studies show that living in neighborhoods without these vital outdoor areas can result in shorter life expectancy, cardiovascular disease, mental health disorders like depression and severe anxiety, and underdeveloped cognitive function in babies, teens, and the elderly. Green spaces have also been proven to help mitigate air pollution, noise levels, and most importantly, promote and encourage physical exercise and social interaction.

Climate change and environmental racism are phrases that we hear more often as the crises caused by capitalism continue to threaten our neighbors and the planet. Environmental racism refers to the ways in which Black, Latino, Native and other oppressed communities are forcibly subjected to a disproportionate number of environmental and social hazards.

Some of the most brutal manifestations of capitalism and the ruling-class prioritization of profits over people can be seen across the city as gentrification develops at a rapid rate. In University City, located in West Philadelphia, longtime residents of the UC Townhomes are engaged in grassroots, community-led struggle to prevent the sale of their homes by Brett Altman and Altman Management Company, an organization that has amassed more than 22 apartment complexes across the city. On July 8, 2021, Altman abruptly informed residents that his development firm would not renew its federal tax subsidy and would put the property up for sale on July 8, 2022, leaving 68 families with no housing alternatives, imminent threat of houselessness and unprotected exposure to the elements. The estimated sales price could rake in around $100 million for Altman.

As Philadelphia and other major cities across the country continue to break heat index records, the White House is failing to adequately address and respond to the urgency and complexity of this struggle. Right before the heatwave hit, Biden pledged $2.3 billion dollars to “help communities across the country build infrastructure that’s designed to withstand the full range of climate change disasters.” This is an insultingly small amount considering the scale of the problem. It also ignores the primary role played by massive corporations and other powerful institutions in carbon emissions. The U.S military, for instance, is the largest polluter in the world, emitting since 2001 more than 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, and accounting for nearly 80% of federal fuel consumption.

In Philadelphia, residents can organize to demand short- and long-term plans for adequate infrastructure across the city in working-class neighborhoods. Residents should demand free utilities like water, electricity and gas to cool and heat their homes. But the cause of the climate crisis we are experiencing is ultimately capitalism itself, which is an economic and political system based on maximizing profits for a tiny minority of the ultra-wealthy, no matter what harm is done to people and to the planet.

Under capitalism, nothing gets done unless a capitalist can make a profit — repairing and improving working-class neighborhoods is seen only as a “cost” to the capitalist. To the capitalists, trees are only good for lumber, and as long as they can continue to make profits every quarter, environmental disaster is inconsequential. Only socialism, a society based around meeting human needs and taking care of the planet, can begin to slow or reverse the worst effects of climate change, and meet the needs of the people and the planet.

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