The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Clear and Present Heat


At least eight people are dead, countless others injured, victims of a preventable disaster that has been exacerbated by politics.

I’m not talking about another shooting.

I’m talking about the heat wave in the American Southwest. Temperatures have reached above 120 degrees, F. Step outdoors into something like that, and you could develop heat stroke in a couple of minutes just by standing around. Heat stroke, remember, is a life-threatening condition in which the body’s cooling system fails and the organs literally begin to cook. These aren’t just unusual conditions for the United States, which is not, after all, tropical, this heat wave would be significant anywhere in the world.

The detail that really jumped out at me was the plane that couldn’t land in Phoenix because the pilot was afraid the hot runway would explode the tires. It’s not that hot weather has never impacted aviation before, but it’s hardly common practice in the US.

Is this global warming? Wrong question, of course, but yes. As I’ve discussed before, even a small increase in average global temperature yields a dramatic increase in the frequency of extreme heat waves, because of a simple quirk in the way the frequency of anything works—extreme events are typically rare, and the most extreme events are exceedingly rare. A rising average temperature makes triple-digit temps slightly closer to normal and therefore a lot less rare.

And we’ve known about global warming long enough now that if the world had acted quickly and decisively back then, our average temperature might not be so high now. This heat wave might still have happened, but it would be less likely. Those eight people might still be alive today.

Lest my comparison to a mass shooting seem exploitive, let me remind you that more people die in the US every year from heat than from all other natural disasters combined and that thousands more die from medical conditions likely exacerbated by heat. The affected are disproportionately the very young, the very old, the ill, the disabled, and the poor. In other words, the vulnerable among us are dying at a shocking and tragic rate from causes that American energy policy is unquestionably making worse—and making worse knowingly.

This is a human rights violation.

The irony in all of this is that the American Southwest would not have so many people in it today were it not for air conditioners. Seriously, with the invention of air conditioners, huge numbers of people, especially the elderly, migrated to the warmer tier of this country, a redistribution of voters that was pivotal in the election of Ronald Regan (who then took the solar panels off of the White House and famously tried to claim that trees cause pollution). Air conditioners have a terrible environmental impact, and not just through their electoral influence. They use vast amounts of electricity (often generated by burning fossil fuel) and leak powerful synthetic greenhouse gasses as well. And many of the people who moved south because of air conditioners are elderly or ill, and thus at higher risk for heat-related injury. And cities build with air conditioners in mind, such as Phoenix, Arizona, often lack other proven heat-reducing technologies, such as public green spaces and cooling architecture.

I’m not trying to blame the victim here on an individual level; I’m saying that heat waves and their associated deaths do not just happen. They aren’t uncontrollable, random events. There is a degree of randomness, yes, and no one can control the weather, exactly, but we’re looking at the results of energy policy, community planning, even architecture, all developed and carried out as if global warming did not exist when we know perfectly well that it does.

Vote for environmentalists. Seriously. Let’s do this.

Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

6 thoughts on “Clear and Present Heat

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