The Augury of our Heat Exhaustion

A warming world presents us with harsh realities and harsher dilemmas. What do the next fifty years look like?

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

I managed to miss the heatwave that blasted the greater Los Angeles region in July. Triple digit temperatures were ubiquitous in the early days of the month, some breaking historic records in Van Nuys and Burbank among other cities. This was a particularly hot and dry stretch of the summer, and bizarrely so: on average, the city of Los Angeles sees its hottest days in September. Instead, we saw a fairly unrelenting stretch of above-average temperatures between June and August.

If perhaps you’re suspicious that it feels hotter for longer during the year, you would be right. A useful interactive display (courtesy of the New York Times) shows you how many more days exceeding 90°F your hometown has in a year now as compared to your birth year. If you just started here at Harvey Mudd College, you were likely born just around the turn of the millennium. In 2000, the city of Claremont could expect about 64 days a year of 90°F days. In 2018, that number has risen to 73. For fun, I looked up Phoenix, Arizona (near my hometown of Tempe). In my birth year of 1992, Phoenix would see 163 days of at least 90°F. That number is now 172.

I mentioned that I’d missed the heatwave in southern California, but that didn’t lend itself to an escape from warm temperatures. I walked into another heatwave when I visited the United Kingdom, followed by even more heat in Greece and Cyprus. And sure, one might have expected as much – it is summertime after all – but as unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires continued to blast different parts of the world this summer, conversations flared not just among climate scientists and environmentalists about just how hot the world is getting and what it all really means. I may have over-utilized Facebook’s “Save Link” feature, quickly stockpiling a number of scientific and opinion articles related to the issue.

In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report (AR5) published in 2014, the IPCC states, “it is virtually certain [meaning 99-100% probability] that there will be more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes over most land areas on daily and seasonal timescales, as global mean surface temperature increases. It is very likely [meaning 90-100% probability] that heat waves will occur with a higher frequency and longer duration.” The statement is broad, but the IPCC’s language carries weight: “human influence on the climate system is clear,” and as the report states, much of the recorded and anticipated increases in global mean surface temperature can be attributed to human activity. Since the publication of the report, reality has largely aligned with the prognosis – 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 all stacked up in the warmest ten years on record.

However, in the past year, the dialogue has taken a different tone – with climate scientists warning that we should anticipate more dire outcomes more quickly, and with adaptation and resilience holding larger presence in mainstream climate conversations than we are used to seeing. Last month, scientists published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that current carbon emission reductions goals and commitments may be insufficient to prevent the planet from entering “Hothouse Earth” conditions – meaning that earth could settle into a long-term temperature stasis that would be 4-5°C warmer than pre-industrial temperatures. The fear is that even as the Earth warms despite our efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, numerous feedback loops in the climate system may incline the planet toward, and consequently reinforce, a warmer, “hothouse” state.

The concept of ‘tipping points’ isn’t new in climate science, and this study in no way suggests that this is a certain outcome. Instead, it highlights already unprecedented climate and weather outcomes at present and urges more aggressive action on both greenhouse gas emissions and on research into how the climate system might respond in a world that is 1.5-2°C warmer than pre-industrial levels. In short, this means a couple of things: first, we cannot just cut greenhouse gas emissions – we must also double our efforts to sequester carbon. Second, as the Earth warms, outcomes that at one point seemed hypothetical in the eyes of climate scientists now fall in the realm of possibility. In regards to the study, Professor Martin Siegert (co-director of the Grantham Institute) warns that while the study doesn’t suggest this will definitely happen, the questions raised are “not outlandish.” Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and co-author of the study, emphasizes that the highlighted outcomes and events in the study “would be dismissed as alarmist” half a century ago, but that now “scientists have become really worried.”

As The Guardian’s Michael McCarthy notes, “what we are witnessing now is a historic shift in the way that the threat of climate change is perceived by the world, from prediction to observation.” These concerns have found their way into mainstream media and opinion editorials that seemed unthinkable only five or six years ago. McCarthy published an opinion earlier this summer observing that the rhetoric has shifted even in amongst more conservative outlets in Britain, who only a few years ago conveyed more denialist or skeptic views on climate change. McCarthy explains that the prognostic and uncertain nature of scientific discourse lent itself to the political environment of the late 2000s and early 2010s that portrayed climate change as subject to debate and climate science as unsettled, but now (and perhaps obviously), “observation is different. Seeing things happening around you cannot be gainsaid like predictions can, and in this remarkable summer of 2018, events in the real world have been starting to catch up with the climate models’ forecasts of an overheating globe.” For the skeptics among us, seeing is now becoming believing.

So, there is no time for us to lament the world’s skepticism and overall lethargic response to climate science. We must significantly scale up action. And as former President Barack Obama noted in a speech at the University of Illinois just the other day, “We know that climate change isn’t just coming. It is here.” And so, in regards to the mercury rising on the world’s global thermometer, what can we reasonably come to expect?

First, let’s turn back to the New York Times interactive page on hometown temperatures – which conveniently also offers us a look ahead. More specifically, it shows us how many 90°F days we might see in a year by the time we hit 80 years of age. So, if you’re a first-year student here in Claremont, the number of those days jumps from 73 days now in 2018 to approximately 95 days in 2080. In the span of your lifetime, Claremont will have virtually an additional month of summertime temperatures. The analyses underlying these projections, conducted by the Climate Impact Lab, the University of Chicago, Rutgers University, and the University of California, Berkeley, assume that countries will meet their Paris Agreement pledges (and sadly many of those countries, as noted by the New York Times, are not on track to meet those commitments). So, these projections are already generous.

Second, as the number of hot days goes up for much of the world, we must acknowledge that different parts of the world will have inherently disparate challenges with adapting to the change. As the above article notes, a city like Phoenix will not feel this disruption as intensely. After all, we Arizonans are already used to ridiculously high temperatures. Other cities in the world, like Montreal, will have a more difficult time adapting, as about 40% of households do not have air conditioning. Coincidentally, another article came out this August discussing which cities around the world are currently inhabitable without air conditioning – and for just how long that will last. The article’s interactive map, drawing from data courtesy of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Climate Impact Lab, reveals that rising temperatures in much of the continental United States and even some of our northern-most states, will need air conditioning in the summer months (between June and August). As one might expect, this will present a number of energy demand and infrastructural challenges for cities where residential spaces may not have been built with central or localized A/C systems.

Third, the consequences will not be as simple as having to turn up the A/C in our homes and offices. Some cities around the world will hit previously unthinkable and anomalous temperatures. Another Guardian piece, entitled “Halfway to boiling: the city at 50C,” paints a picture of an urban environment more regularly blasted with sweltering temperatures of up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. A brief perusal of the piece will offer mildly dystopian and alarmist emanations, but the description is either on point or not far from actual experience. A few lines already ring true, including descriptions of a city with empty pavements, parks, and neighborhoods during the day. You don’t have to go far to see that: summer trips home to Phoenix have shown me empty parks and recreational spaces during the daytime, and many a-local news anchor reminding viewers to stay inside. A couple of other choice lines ring true, particularly those detailing how the more affluent among us will simply move between climate-conditioned spaces like our cars, our gyms, and our homes, as well as how one might fry an egg on the pavement (you can YouTube that one).

But this article touches on larger and less trivial themes. It hits on environmental justice, describing a society that is “divided into the cool haves and the hot have-nots.” At this temperature, public health concerns emerge – heat stress becomes more commonplace, and the elderly, obese, and sick among us will be most vulnerable. This is not unheard of: 70,000 Europeans died in 2003 during a heatwave that throttled the continent. The article expands upon this point: “in almost all countries, hospital admissions and death rates tend to rise when temperatures pass 35C – which is happening more often, in more places. Currently, 354 major cities experience average summer temperatures in excess of 35C; by 2050, climate change will push this to 970… In the same period, it predicts the number of urban dwellers exposed to this level of extreme heat will increase eightfold, to 1.6 billion.”

The world faces inevitable heat stress that is, at best, uncomfortable and, at worst, life-threatening. And it may never quite feel so sudden or obvious because, like many of the consequences of climate change, the change is gradual and hard to perceive on a day-to-day basis. However, the fact that this has caught some real attention may provide impetus to more aggressive responses on an international level. For some, this change will be bearable, and for others, it will present harsh dilemmas on how and where they will live. On a larger scale, it will require policy decisions that not only entail building a world that accounts for our warming climate, but also retrofitting our current infrastructure and emergency procedures so that we can adapt and be resilient to more acute shocks like wildfires and earthquakes and chronic stressors like droughts and more frequent heatwaves. Also, there are and will continue to be serious crises that arise due to the consequences of climate change, including but not limited to geopolitical conflict, an increase in the world’s refugees and forced migration, and a continued loss of the world’s plant and animal species and overall agricultural production. Above all, it requires us to pay attention – not just to our thermometers and our thermostats, but to the conversations we’re having in our government, workplaces, and our homes about climate change and how it is already affecting us.