As Earth warms, heat waves are striking more frequently and intensely, but their deadly toll is not shared equally. Not even close.
Extreme heat inflicts its misery on those least able to protect themselves, as the Los Angeles Times documented in a 2021 series focusing on perhaps the most overlooked and lethal consequence of climate change – extreme heat. Our series used a combination of peer-reviewed data analysis, extensive interviews with governmental officials and on-the-ground reporting in rich and poor California neighborhoods to detail the uneven and lethal impact of heat waves.
Like so many other projects of its type, this one started before the pandemic. In late 2019, reporters Tony Barboza and Anna M. Phillips proposed an investigation of extreme heat in California. The unfolding public health catastrophe soon put that work on hold. Yet the pandemic offered lessons on how to approach our coverage of heat. As COVID-19 surged, epidemiologists used excess deaths analyses to tally how many people were dying from the virus. In early 2021, The Times decided to pursue a similar analysis to determine, for the first time, the true toll of extreme heat in California.
Phillips and Barboza filed numerous public records requests to obtain official death reports from state officials and from coroner’s offices across 58 counties. Sean Greene, a data and graphics editor, then worked with an outside health statistician, Logan Arnold, to calculate how many more Californians were dying from heat waves than what coroners and the state health department was reporting. Our analysis – reviewed by four outside experts – found that heat-related deaths between 2010 and 2019 were likely six times higher than official figures.
But this wasn’t just a numbers story. Phillips and Barboza, along with reporter Ruben Vives and photographer Genaro Molina, spent months visiting families who’d lost loved ones, earning the trust needed to tell their stories.
Workers toiling in hot interiors were the focus of our second installment, reported by Phillips, who spent months examining the retail warehouses scattered across the California desert. Despite temperatures that can regularly top 115 degrees, few warehouses use air conditioning, except to chill food. As one worker said, “We have this giant frickin’ refrigerated room to keep the chocolate from melting. While people are practically … dropping off.”
This story was difficult to report, partly because retailers would not allow our team access to the interior of their giant warehouses, despite repeated requests. Phillips had to delay completion of the story awaiting comment and fact checks from companies such as Rite-Aid and Amazon, which she obtained.
In our third installment, Barboza, Vives and Greene used satellite imagery and on-the-ground reporting to shed new light on striking “thermal inequities” that checker Los Angeles and other cities as climate change heats them up. Their reporting showed how disparities in tree cover, housing quality and other neighborhood histories increase temperatures and magnify health risks in poor areas, while wealthier ones remain relatively shielded.
This series was a clear winner for two reasons. First, the team addressed familiar topics in ways that humanized the reporting. For example, the story on warehouse temperatures stayed centered on the workers. Second, the reporting included outstanding photos and visuals, especially the visualizations of the “heat dome” and LA County’s unevenly distributed tree canopy. From our vantage point, it seems like the team kept digging for more ways to report on climate change’s impact in their local area. Judges felt this led to a comprehensive, award-winning package of stories.