June 21, 2023

Duke Launches Heat Policy Innovation Hub to Safeguard Communities

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

As the start of summer ushers in an El Niño-fueled heat season, a new Duke University program aims to reduce the impacts of extreme heat on human health and well-being.

The Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability has launched the Heat Policy Innovation Hub, a first-of-its-kind program in the United States. The hub will bring together Duke scholars, government agencies, communities and other stakeholders to develop and deploy heat policy solutions that could ultimately save lives.

“Heat exposure is already one of the most consequential impacts of climate change, and the threat is expected to worsen in coming years,” said Ashley Ward, who directs the hub at the Nicholas Institute. “Heat-related illnesses are largely preventable, but for the greatest impact, interventions must target the most vulnerable populations at the right times. The Heat Policy Innovation Hub will work across disciplines and with communities to spur much-needed innovation to policy approaches to extreme heat.”

thumbnail for "Beat the Heat: Cooling Strategies to Stay Safe" infographic
In addition to its policy work, the hub is developing educational resources for communities. For example, you can download an infographic on cooling strategies to stay safe. (Available in English and Spanish.)

While destruction caused by hurricanes, floods or tornadoes is readily apparent, more people in the United States have died from heat exposure than from any other weather-related phenomenon in the last three decades. Scientific evidence links heat to a variety of negative health outcomes and to economic impacts such as labor loss, hospital visits and agricultural losses.

Duke is uniquely positioned to advance innovative policy approaches on heat and health. Duke scholars offer globally recognized expertise in medicine, healthcare, public policy, engineering, the environment and ministry—all fields critical to the issue. The university’s location in the US Southeast puts it squarely in a region profoundly affected by extreme heat. The hub is also aligned with the Duke Climate Commitment, which unites the university’s education, research, operations and public service missions to address the climate crisis.

“Mitigating the future rise in global temperatures remains critical, but the reality is that we are living with the effects of climate change now,” said Brian Murray, interim director of the Nicholas Institute and a research professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment and Sanford School of Public Policy. “Extreme heat is a prime example of a climate adaptation challenge that requires a comprehensive and collaborative approach. Through the Heat Policy Innovation Hub, Duke and partner organizations will integrate academic research with what we learn from community engagement to advance high-impact solutions.”

The Heat Policy Innovation Hub will initially focus on five areas:

  • Improving planning and preparedness at the federal, state and local levels
  • Addressing impacts on women’s health
  • Advancing effective early warning systems for extreme heat events
  • Developing solutions tailored for rural communities
  • Integrating climate science with healthcare

Early projects are most closely tied to the first focus area: planning and preparedness.

An April report written by Ward and Jordan Clark, a postdoctoral associate at the Nicholas Institute, found that state hazard mitigation plans often understate the importance of extreme heat. The report supplements policy guidance issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that for the first time requires state emergency managers to consider climate change and equity in disaster planning. Ward and Clark offered recommendations to help emergency managers adequately evaluate the threat of extreme heat as they update their plans.

In North Carolina, Ward and Clark are working with state and local agencies to create a template for a county-level comprehensive heat action plan. The project will produce a practical, adaptable template that each of the state’s 100 counties can tailor to their own unique needs and circumstances.

A forthcoming report will focus on high school athletes, who are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses while training and competing in high temperatures. The project seeks to create effective preventive strategies and safety guidelines to prioritize student-athletes' health and safety.

In addition to its policy work, the hub is developing resources to help educate the public on the dangers of extreme heat and how to stay safe. For example, a new graphic outlines the signs of heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke—and how best to respond to each. 

Ward, Clark and other Duke experts affiliated with the Heat Policy Innovation Hub are available to speak with journalists and decision makers interested in learning more about extreme heat and potential solutions. Contact ni-comm@duke.edu.