The Climate in Emergency

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

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Putting Heat in Context


I am busy and tired and I can’t think of much to say right now. But it has not missed my attention that parts of Arizona hit 122 degrees Fahrenheit again. People are posting photos online of weird stuff melting in the heat.  I wrote about this same thing last year. At least six people have died in this heat wave, in other states (none reported in Arizona itself). But remember that heat stroke keeps killing days, weeks, even years after the heat wave is over. We won’t hear about those deaths in the news. We won’t learn their names. But think about those people as the days and weeks and years go by, please.

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The Longest Day of the Year

Today is the summer solstice. Right around the time I post this, actually (12:24 PM, Eastern Daylight Time), the Earth will reach the point in its orbit when the North Pole points most directly at the sun. If you were standing at the North Pole, you would see the sun make a complete circuit of the sky, without dipping noticeably towards the horizon at any point (though in fact it must dip because the Pole never points directly at the sun). At lower latitudes like mine, we get the longest day of the year*.

Fifteen hours and twenty-six minutes at my latitude, not counting twilight.

The winter solstice, in December, gets more attention. I have written about it here, myself. There are songs and lights and stories and a big fuss generally made, but there is an absence of fuss today. It’s a curious thing, and it’s not because there are just more holidays in December. The winter solstice gets Yule (on the solstice itself), Christmas, Hanukkah, and several others. The summer solstice gets Litha (on the solstice), St. John’s Day (on the 24th), Juneteenth, Father’s Day–this year, Laylat al-Qadr also falls around now, although the Muslim calendar moves with respect to the Gregorian calendar of the secular world. And yet who can quickly articulate the transcultural themes of this solstice?

The problem, I suspect, is that while the winter solstice lends itself to celebrations of hope and renewal (the return of the light), at the summer solstice, the light is about to start going way. This day reminds us that all good things are temporary, all triumphs limited, all joy shadowed by the eventuality of loss. It’s just not an appealing source of metaphor.

And yet.

Only in silence, the word

Only in darkness, the light

Only in dying, life

Bright the hawk’s flight

On the empty sky

So begins A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin, one of my favorite books of all time. It is generally marketed to children, but I think that is because reading it first in childhood gives you the best opportunity to have the time to read it the 257 times (at least) necessary to fully understand everything in its slim and deceptively simple pages. I am hardly the only one to see depths in this book, and I’ve talked about her work at length in this blog.

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first of a series of six books (five novels and a collection of short stories). Structurally, these look to be two interlocking trilogies, rather than a sextet, since the first three differ radically in theme and mood from the latter three. The third book, the culmination of the first trilogy, most fully explores the idea introduced by the epigraph I’ve quoted–that life and death are reciprocal and inextricable. As I wrote in a previous post:

In The Farthest Shore, a wizard casts a spell for immortality and accidentally–though, without caring about it much–unbalances the entire world, creating a  “hole through which life drains out,” as some of the characters describe it. Essentially, he makes a serious attempt to cast off the limits imposed by both biology and physics, which is exactly the same thing we’ve been using fossil fuels for. I do not know if Ms. LeGuin intended it this way, and I suspect she did not, but the book makes an interesting allegory for climate change, with personal immortality standing in for the more complex suit of powers we look for from technology–a story of the pursuit of a good thing causing ruin because it is taken to absolutes.

One character asks why a person shouldn’t want immortality. His companion, a very wise man, replies:

–Why should you not desire immortality? How should you not? Every soul desires it, and its health is the strength of its desire. But be careful; you are one who might achieve your desire.

–And then? [the other asks]

–And then this: a false king ruling, the arts of man forgotten, the singer tongueless, the eye blind. This! This blight and plague on the lands, this sore we seek to heal. There are two, two that make one, the world and the shadow, the light and the dark. The two poles of the Balance. Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other, and are forever reborn. And with them all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is life. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal? What is it but death–death without rebirth?

Ms. LeGuin may not have intended to write about climate change–but given the depth of her subject matter, it’s fair to say her topic included environmental issues, and she clearly knew about climate change at the time she wrote it, because she described the concept in a novel published three years earlier.

To avoid environmental disaster, we must accept and respect limits. Not that sustainability involves everybody “freezing to death in the dark,” the straw-man attacked by some, nor does it really involve accepting any greater limits than any other lifestyle does–the limits are real, and we run up against them no matter how we live. But the pro-industrial, fossil-fuel dependent way of life to which many of us have become accustomed is predicated on the assumption that all limits can be transcended, so that if going after what we want creates problems, we assume that if we pursue our desires harder, those problems, too, will be solved. And that isn’t how the world works.

Acknowledging limitation allows us to make intelligent choices about how we will use the resources we actually have. Since we must bear some cost, let’s live our lives in such a way that it is a cost we can bear with a clear conscience, not something we must pretend does not exist, or something we’d rather shunt off to be borne by the people of some other country, ethnic group, generation, or species. Since the long days of summer are few, this solstice tells us, let us choose to spend them outside playing in sprinklers, or sitting in the shade with a cool drink.

Only in silence, the word

Only in darkness, the light

Only in dying, life

Bright the hawk’s flight

On the empty sky


*Of course, I live in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, today is the winter solstice, and the summer solstice occurs in December.

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How Heat Hurts

I got heat exhaustion today. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual occurrence for me–I seem to be unusually susceptible. I don’t know why. Heat exhaustion is one of several types of heat-related illnesses. It is not, in itself, normally dangerous, but can progress to heat stroke, which can kill you.

Heat is a matter of weather—but it is also a matter of climate. Obviously, global warming means more hot days, but the increase doesn’t work quite the way intuition says it should. Intuitively, an average warming of, say, one degree Fahrenheit, should add one degree on to typical daily temps. So if your normal summer day was 90 degrees, now it’s 91 degrees. Not a big difference. But that’s not how it works.

As I have addressed before, a small increase in average temperature results in a large increase in the frequency of heat waves. This is because there is a well-established link between rarity and severity across many different types of variation, from body height to intelligence to air temperature. A slight increase above average (a few degrees, a few inches….) translates into a dramatic decrease in frequency of occurrence. How often do you see people who are six feet tall? Now often do you see people who are seven feet tall? The difference seems larger than what a mere twelve inches would imply.

A hotter normal means that severe heat waves that used to be very rare become common-place, while the human vulnerability to heat injury remains roughly the same.

My illness today is not particularly a climate change story–it was not one of those events that make it obvious normal has changed. Hot days in mid-June are not new for Maryland. But the experience did inspire me to do some reading about how heat stroke actually works—more people die from heat than from all other natural disasters combined. I decided I wanted to know more about what happens in the body when it gets hot.

Please note that I’m skipping over issues like how to recognize and treat heat-related problems. For that information, look up a public health website maintained by a reputable medical institution (anything else, and you’ll likely be reading content written by free-lance writers who don’t know anything more about medicine than you do).


When I received emergency medical training years ago, I learned that heat exhaustion is essentially a form of aggravated dehydration—the body is not hotter than it should be, but keeping cool is taking too much effort, including loss of so much water through sweat that blood volume drops. The symptoms are mostly the body’s attempt to compensate for lost blood volume in order to keep adequate blood flow to the brain. Heat injury and then heat stroke, in contrast, result when the body’s cooling system fails (sometimes because dehydration has become critical and the sweat response shuts off—when a person who should be sweating isn’t, that’s a very bad sign) and body temperature rises uncontrollably. Doctors then have hours or even minutes to act before the patient literally cooks to death.

Like most simple explanations, this one is not quite right. For example, brain damage in heat stroke is not caused by the brain tissue heating up, as I’d been led to believe–instead, excessive heat causes the blood/brain barrier to become leaky, allowing substances into the brain that should not be there, and that causes damage. Heat stroke, though triggered by heat (either through passive exposure to high temperature or to excessive exercise in hot weather or under too much clothing), actual injury—and often death—is not the direct result of the body cooking. After all, cooking occurs at specific temperatures (that’s why recipes work), but the temperature at which heat injury occurs is variable. There are documented cases of people surviving core temperatures above 107 degrees Fahrenheit, but there are also many cases of people dying at much lower temperatures. The body is a complex system. Heat-related injury and death are the result of complex responses to heat, not the heat itself.

The information in this post, except where noted, is taken from a document produced–or at least presented–by the US Military (service members are at high risk for heat stroke, therefore the military is interested in the issue). The “report date” of the PDF is listed as 2012, although since it is evidently a chapter in a longer book, I don’t know if the report date is earlier or later than the copyright date of the book. I don’t know how old this information is. It’s a dense read, but I’ve attempted to summarize the main points below.

How Heat Stroke Works

Not everyone is equally vulnerable to heat stroke. There are long lists of circumstances that create higher risk, so many that it might seem everybody must belong to at lest one of them—but it’s important to note that some risk factors are a matter of choice (running marathons on hot days) and some are not (being very young, very old, already ill, or poor). There are obvious social justice issues here, as I’ve discussed before.

Interestingly, several risk factors do not involve simple vulnerability to heat (as in our marathon runner, or a home-bound elderly person without an air conditioner) but rather impairments of the body’s ability to respond. A sunburn or a heat rash can impair the body’s ability to cool itself, for example. Illness or inflammation (e.g., pneumonia) makes heat stroke more likely. Heart problems, certain medications, or low potassium or sodium levels also either make heat stroke more likely or more dangerous. These facts alone should suggest the medical complexity of the problem.

Heat stroke is also a much more drawn out process than the idea of cooking would imply. Literal cooking ceases as soon as the object being cooked cools, but heat stroke isn’t over when the victim’s core temperature is brought back to normal. If he or she lives long enough, the bodily changes initiated by the heat will continue to play out. The patient will probably run a fever (which actually helps the body heal), and may also go through periods of abnormally low body temperature.  Kidney failure will probably occur between two and 24 hours after the initial collapse. The liver will likely fail after 24 to 48 hours. Mortality rates often rise about a month after mass heat stroke events (like heat waves), after patients have been discharged. The risk of dying from cardiovascular, kidney, or liver disease can remain elevated for 30 years. There may be long-term cognitive impairment. And and since many illnesses or deaths are either never recognized as related to a patient’s heat-stroke history, or never reported as such, the true prevalence of these problems is likely much higher than the data we have indicate. There has been little research done on how these long-term problems happen, and no one really knows what to do about it yet.

The bottom line is that the number of people who die of a heat wave is much higher than the number of people who die in a heat wave.

Heat stroke is actually several processes, although the whole story is not yet clear even to scientists.

The dominant process may actually be an immune response called Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (SIRS). This is the same–or at least very similar–to what happens when an infection enters the bloodstream, a condition called sepsis or, less technically, “blood poisoning.” Its symptoms include fever and a whole series of both helpful and non-so-helpful biochemical changes.

Heat-induced SIRS is actually not caused directly by heat. Instead, when the body redirects more blood flow to the skin (heat stroke victims are typically bright red), the internal organs necessarily get less. Insufficient blood flow can damage the gut lining, causing it to leak endotoxin into the blood. The endotoxin, in turn, triggers SIRS–if severe enough, the endotoxin or SIRS (I’m actually not clear which–it looks as though scientists might not be sure, either), destroys the major vital organs, causing death.

Injection of endotoxin alone (into animals) triggers the clinical symptoms of heat stroke.

Another important process is DIC, which stands for Disseminated Introvascular Coagulation. Essentially, the blood starts clumping up, leaving the blood remaining in circulation way too thin. DIC can be caused either by tissue damage (sepsis is listed as a common cause, suggesting that DIC can be caused by SIRS–the immune response I just described–although that is not clear to me from the article) or by direct heat injury to the vascular system.  Besides the real risk of bleeding to death, DIC also causes, or helps cause other problems associated with heat stroke.

DIC can cause kidney failure, for example. But kidney failure can the proteins released by muscles damaged by SIRS, or by heat toxicity itself.  It can be difficult to tell which problems are causes and which are results.

Heat stress is one of several possible triggers for the release of cytokines, a class of messenger proteins that in some circumstances are a necessary part of healing–but experimental injection of these proteins triggers heat stroke symptoms including excessive body heat. In other words, the body doesn’t just get sick because it gets too hot—it also gets hot because it’s sick. Exactly what role cytokines play in actual heat stroke isn’t known, yet, but cytokines are involved in many of the processes and subprocesses of heat stroke.

There are several possible treatments for heat stroke being developed based on this more detailed understanding of the malady, but so far, heat stroke is much easier to prevent than to treat. Prevention consists not just of staying cool, but also in becoming adequately acclimatized–general good health and fitness, plus a recent history of being uncomfortably but not dangerously hot fairly often dramatically increase the body’s ability to safely withstand heat. In other words, HAVING a working air conditioner can save your life, but using it often (hiding from summer heat) puts you more at risk for those times when you do have to get by without it–if, for example, there is a power outage during a heat wave.


All of this might sound like unrepentant geeking out on my part. I am, in fact, an unrepentant geek, but my primary motivation for this post is, as I said, to take a close look at a malady likely to become ever more familiar, both to us individually and as a matter of public health policy.

One study that looked at the UK has predicted that, as a result of global warming, the incidence of death from heat stroke in that country will double by 2050. That’s only just over thirty years away.




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About that Tango in Paris

Last week, a family member landed in the hospital. They’re out again, now. No, I will not go into any detail. Yes, that was why I was too busy, both physically and psychologically, to post.

Last week, too, President Trump announced his attention to leave the Paris climate pact. I’d been getting little notifications for a while that he was considering doing so, and that I should sign things or contact people to object. I signed nothing and contacted nobody. I felt like I was treading water, and there were other swimmers clinging to me. I could not spare the mental energy.

Would Mr. Trump have decided to stay in had I gotten involved? I’ll never know, but probably not. He’s been promising to pull out since he was a candidate, I’d be surprised if anything could have changed his mind. Anyway, to claim too much responsibility would seem both masochistic and arrogant. I’m only one person…but swallow too much of that comfort, and I’ll poison myself, come to believe I can’t make a difference at all.

The truth is I can’t change the fact that my family needed me in a very immediate way last week. Nor can I change the fact that I have emotional and physical limitations myself. Everybody does. We just have to hope that we’re not all limited at the same time in the same way, because what we’re up against does not appear to rest, or get sick, or go to sleep.

Had I posted last week, my post would have consisted only of the above, entirely glum admission.

Fortunately, in the intervening days, I have learned that getting out of Paris may be harder than Mr. Trump seems to think. And a growing number of people are deciding that even if Mr. Trump does pull out, the rest of us will stay in.

Still Politically Binding

Mr. Trump can’t just wish away the Paris climate agreement. No party to the pact can formally announce an intention to pull out until at least 2019, and such a decision won’t count as formal until at least 2020. So we’re still in until then.

To get out any earlier would require withdrawing from the 1992 UNFCCC treaty, which was ratified by the Senate–meaning that Mr. Trump can’t withdraw by executive order. He’ll need the Senate’s cooperation, which he may or may not get.

Of course, Donald Trump can simply direct his administration to ignore the agreement–this is exactly what he said he’s doing, actually–which has no real legal teeth. It was specifically designed not to have teeth, in order to avoid having to be ratified by the US Senate. It was designed to be politically binding, meaning that if a country ignores its obligations, everyone else will know to laugh and jeer at what irresponsible ignoramuses that country contains.

Well, prepare to be laughed and jeered at, because there is no mechanism whatever to get out of that one.

What Leaving Paris Means–And Doesn’t

Curiously, Mr. Trump suggested he wants to renegotiate Paris so that it is fairer to the US and doesn’t impose a cost on our businesses. Of course, that is baloney; under the agreement, each country is free to draft its own commitments. If we drafted commitments that won’t work for us (which I don’t believe, but that’s another subject), it’s hardly the fault of the negotiators at Paris.

France, Italy, and Germany lost no time in pointing out that climate action is an economic opportunity, and no, they will not renegotiate with Mr. Trump, thank you very much. They actually intend to put more of their own resources into fighting climate change, in order to make up for US negligence. Good for them.

But the reason I call Mr. Trump’s suggestion of renegotiation curious is that it indicates he feels the need to appease the environmental movement, to at least pretend to care about the climate, even as he makes it very clear that he doesn’t. That’s actually a good sign. It means he is feeling some political pressure, and if we push hard enough, he might actually back down a little. After all, Richard Nixon thought tree huggers were pretty stupid, but public pressure made him an environmentalist president anyway.

So, getting out of Paris by whatever means won’t allow us to escape our politically binding obligations, and it won’t improve the US economy. It might not even have much of an effect on individual US businesses (since we won’t be out for several more years, anyway), and it’s not really the bald-faced political shout-out to climate deniers that it seems, because Mr. Trump is trying to hedge his bets by claiming he wants to improve the agreement.

What, then, is the point?

An article on Politico argues persuasively that Mr. Trump is simply trying to thumb his nose at the global community. After all, he can’t demonstrate what a bad-boy strongman he is by building a wall against Mexico (turns out nobody will pay for it), so this is the next best thing, his demonstration that nobody can tell him what to do.

And at that, his action will be effective.

The State of the Country

In the meantime, a long and impressive list of states and other entities are signing on to Paris, or some version or equivalent of it, independent of Federal leadership.

There are three agreements involved. There is the United States Climate Alliance, which involves states individually committing to “achieving the U.S. goal of reducing emissions 26-28 percent from 2005 levels and meeting or exceeding the targets of the federal Clean Power Plan.” The Alliance will also act as a forum for supporting and implementing new and existing climate action generally.

The Climate Mayors’ Agreement is a publicly stated intention on the part of signatory mayors to also pursue climate action. We Are Still In is an open letter, signed by the leaders of cities, counties, educational institutions, businesses, and investors, stating a pro-climate intention in light of Mr. Trump’s planned withdrawal.

Now, the Alliance appears not to be legally binding. In fact, it can’t be legally binding, because the Constitution specifically forbids the states from entering into treaties with foreign powers or each other without the consent of Congress. Each individual state can legally commit to emissions-reductions goals on its own, something Hawaii has now done. Other states could follow.

The text of the Climate Mayors’ Agreement and the We Are Still In letter do not state any concrete goals and therefore they are not even politically enforceable, as of yet. That is, without goals, it will be impossible to tell whether the signatories are acting on their commitments or not. The signatories also appear to be individuals, not government entities or organizations, meaning that if any of these people leave/get fired/don’t win reelection, all bets are off. But we can hope that the publicly stated intention is a beginning on which more concrete actions and commitments will build.

Personally, I feel a good deal better this week than last. I have more hope.

Nationally, we have work to do. We need to get on this momentum and push it farther. For example, my state, Maryland, has not yet signed on. Marylanders can push our leaders to do so–and residents of other states that have not yet signed on can also push.

Your town, your county, your school, your kids’ school, your alma mater, your employer, the businesses you patronize, push all of them.

The other thing we have to do is make plans to ensure that none of the political leaders who have signed on fail to win re-election.

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Seeing Patterns

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of a hike on Mount Desert Island with my friend and teacher, Tom Wessels–the same man who lead the hike in the White Mountains described in my post, The Ghost of White Birches. Only, then he was leading an organized group activity associated with the school I’d just graduated. This time, for the first time, we were just friends going hiking together.

Myself, my husband, our elderly but still spry dogs, and him.

Switching contexts can have an unpredictable effect on relationships, and I can be slow on the uptake when the rules change. I had left it to Tom to suggest a hike, rather than saying so myself, because I did not want him to think I was expecting him to work on his day off. But as it happened, I need not have worried. Nothing had really changed between us. And while he had no planned lectures, no educational objectives, and had not previously hiked our whole route (as a professor, he appears to meticulously plan everything), he still kept us appraised of the cultural and natural history around us, knowing and sharing our interest. Tom is not one of those people who wears radically different hats for changing circumstance. He is always and exactly himself.

He told us that part of the trail we followed ran along the bed of the first road on the island. He pointed out a big-toothed aspen so furrowed with age that it looked like an ancient cottonwood, and how two other trees of the same size and species nearby must be much younger, having smoother bark.* He commented that the rhodora was coming into bloom. He answered questions, asked and unasked.

“Sap,” he said, spotting me examining a mass of white stuff at the base of a tree. I had thought it was either sap or bird urine and that either way it indicated some story. “These spruces are not doing well. Fungus comes in, then ants, then woodpeckers. Carpenter ants can’t excavate healthy wood.” The sap had flowed from the work of a pileated woodpecker, going after carpenter ants.

I knew from previous conversations that one of the reasons the spruces are becoming more vulnerable is climate change.

Much of Mount Desert Island is dominated by spruces, a cold-tolerant genus of tree that is rare at this latitude. The island–and the coast of Maine generally–is different because the frigid Humbolt Current bathes the land in cool sea breezes and cold sea fogs. According to rangers at Acadia National Park, which includes much of the island, the Gulf of Maine is now warming faster than almost any other water body in the world. Lobsters are moving north, to the detriment of lobstermen in southern New England. Southern fish species are moving in. In warm years, every puffin chick in the state starves to death, unable to swallow the larger, southern fish their parents bring.

I was right to think the white stuff at the base of the tree held a story.

Tom sees patterns. In a somewhat different and still less-developed way, so do I. A hiker without this kind of knowledge would see a pristine wilderness, protected in perpetuity by the US Park Service. Tom sees spruces not doing well (and paper birches dying off, lobsters moving, puffins starving) and is saddened.

There is a certain comfort to be had by sharing your reality with another. We chat about our home, mine and my husband’s, in Maryland, and how our forested lot prevents our having a garden, or a solar panel, or a wind turbine, but does protect us from the damaging effects of winds. In the ten years I’ve been there, I say, we’ve survived two hurricanes (Sandy and Irene) and a derecho, and the wind mostly flows over the tops of the trees.

“Those will happen more frequently, because of climate change,” comments Tom. We know. My husband talks about the changes he’s seen in Assateague Island in the forty years he’s been watching the place. Casual visitors don’t see that, either, only an unspoiled, wild beach, but we have friends who were married in a house on that beach and the house is not there anymore. The place where it stood is now several yards off shore. Maryland is slowly sinking, a natural subsidence triggered by the retreat of the glaciers tens of thousands of years ago, but sea level rise from climate change is real, too.

Last month, in St. Michaels, a town on the Chesapeake Bay, I saw water quietly lapping over the edge of the town dock, standing a few inches deep on pavement. Nobody else said anything. Nobody acknowledged it was happening, let alone extraordinary. Tidal height can vary. There is the influence of the moon’s phase, of course, since full moons and new moons produce extreme tides, and an onshore wind can pile up water on the coast. If both occur at the same time, tides can become extraordinary quite naturally.

But the town dock would not have been built where it was if flooding were normal at the time of its construction.

Last night I dreamed that nothing I did turned out right, that I was driving down winding country roads, lost, that the roads became dangerously, fantastically steep so I pulled over, only to watch my parked car roll down hill into the back of another. The metaphor of my subconscious is clear; I don’t know what to do about any of these patterns.

My mother and I discuss politics over breakfast. We are both worried about the survival of democracy. I go to bed with a hard knot of anxiety, the same nauseous fear that has plagued me since the election. I attend marches, write political letters, sign petitions, keep this blog, but there is something else that must be done, some stronger, more effective way to fight, but through the fog of anxiety, I don’t see it. Other than to acknowledge the truth, share my reality, I don’t know what to do.


  • The rate at which wood grows varies, as many people know, but the bark of each species grows at a nearly constant rate. Thus, an individual growing more slowly than normal for its species will have thicker, more textured bark. With some few exceptions, trunk size plus bark texture gives a better indication of tree age than either does alone.