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Extreme heat is all of our problem

Huge portions of humanity are facing an end-date for their way of life

Environment

A bright orange sky in Vancouver. Photo from Shutterstock.

From June 25 to July 1, 2021, temperatures soared past 40 degrees in BC, setting records all over the province. The heat wave broke Canada’s all-time temperature record three days in a row, finally settling at 49.6C in the village of Lytton just days before it burned to the ground.

More than 600 people died because of the heat wave. According to a report just released by the BC Coroner’s Office, those people were, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly poorer, sicker, older, and more alone than the general population.

Washington and Oregon experienced the same heat wave in similar environments and managed to come through it with far fewer deaths, making it clear that at least part of the problem in BC was the public health response to the heat wave—or lack thereof. It’s hard to forget Premier John Horgan’s words after the death toll started to become clear: “fatalities are a part of life.” He went on to call keeping cool “a matter of personal responsibility.”

But BC’s failed response is only part of the problem and the Coroner’s report, which makes a number of important recommendations for mitigating the risks of extreme heat, misses the single strongest mitigation tool we have: stopping the inexorable rise of global temperatures.

This isn’t a “gotcha” about the use of the term mitigation. There’s no question BC could’ve and should’ve done more to protect people last year, and unfortunately it’s now clear that they failed to make even the most basic changes in preparation for this summer. But even in places with more responsive governments, the grim reality is that we are already bumping up against the limits of adaptation. And the world has only warmed 1.2 degrees so far.

As I write this, BC is roasting under a new round of heat. Cities across the western US set all-time heat records in early June.

Spain is fighting massive wildfires amidst a record-breaking heat wave that itself is causing wildfire risk to skyrocket.

Iran reached 52 degrees on Monday, June 20—the highest temperature anywhere on Earth so far this year. Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, was over 50C the next day.

Perhaps the worst event was the heat wave endured by India and Pakistan that started in late April. It, without hyperbole, “[tested] the limits of human survivability.” More than one-eighth of all humans alive today lived through (or didn’t) days of sustained temperatures up to 50 degrees. It was a scenario that matched a hypothetical “what if” story set in 2041 The Economist published last year.

Thousands have died in previous heat waves in India; we don’t yet know how many died in this one. It was impossible not to watch and think about the hellish fictional Subcontinent heat wave that kicked off Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future in which 20 million people died.

These heat waves—and more that I haven’t mentioned—are all occurring during a La Niña year, a global atmospheric phenomenon which typically comes with lower average temperatures. The renowned climate scientist James Hansen believes that the world may break the 1.5C threshold during the next El Niño event.

As the Coroner’s report indicates, the BC government—and governments everywhere—needs to respond more effectively to extreme heat events. They need to invest in cooling infrastructure and systems of care and support for the poor, the elderly, and the otherwise marginalized. They need to invest in green space and natural tools for mitigating the amplifying effects of urban environments. And the media needs to stop downplaying the danger of extreme heat by accompanying stories with photos of “fun in the sun.”

But we’re already living in a world we can’t truly adapt to. Today’s heat waves are often accompanied by brownouts or blackouts, not just in India or Iran but even here in the Global North. Places like New York City. Power failures are more and more common, at least in part because of the interactions between the many social and physical impacts of climate change like wildfires, floods, increased power demand from record-breaking heat, and war.

A study published last year looked at the interaction between grid failures and heat waves in three urban centers in the US. The authors found that hundreds of thousands—millions in one particularly vulnerable city—of people would experience dangerous indoor temperatures if there were a power outage at the same time as a heat wave. The study’s lead author told the New York Times that “a widespread blackout during an intense heat wave may be the deadliest climate-related event we can imagine.”

Hundreds of thousands of people were without power for more than a week just last month in Ontario and Québec because of a derecho, a type of destructive wind event that spawns specifically because of heat domes. How many would have died had a heat wave hit Ontario immediately afterwards?

When you look at the growing risks to the electrical grid—infrastructure that is already unpredictable in many parts of the world—it becomes clear that this confluence of disasters is not just contingent but inevitable. Robinson’s fictional heat wave that killed 20 million may not happen this year. It may not happen next year. But with warming on track to exceed 1.5C within a decade or less and currently unlikely to stop short of two degrees, it is a matter of time.

Even heat risk alone—ignoring the amplification of that risk by other cascading social and climatic impacts—paints a grim picture. A study published last year found that just 1.5 degrees of warming would subject the tropics to regular heat events exceeding the so-called “wet bulb” humidity and temperature threshold above which humans are unable to survive. Another one found that as much as 20 percent of Earth’s land (occupied today by one-third of the global population) could be uninhabitable by 2070. A third reported that by 2100, heavily populated regions of India and China could be too hot for humans to go outside.

With 1.5 degrees of warming, portrayed as our aspirational best case scenario for climate mitigation (and already widely considered out of reach), huge portions of humanity will face an end-date for their way of life. The rest of us, lucky enough to live somewhere cooler, will still face regular life-threatening heat events, our ability to survive them (via air conditioning and other adaptive measures) constantly challenged by storms, floods, wildfires, and conflict.

This isn’t a call for despair. It’s a reality check. The possible futures that global leadership have classified as acceptable are impossible to justify. “1.5 to stay alive” is as true today as it was in 2015, but our ambition can’t stop there. As Hansen put it recently, “our target cannot be just minimizing how intolerable climate becomes.” Emissions must be brought to zero—not “net zero”—far sooner than 2050 so we can get to the work of rebuilding the natural systems we’ve destroyed. We need to restore the stable, livable climate of the Holocene, the only climate that human society as we know it has ever existed within.

That means challenging some of the fundamental assumptions that limit climate ambition today: assumptions like, “we can’t live well without perpetual economic growth.” And it means challenging the powerful interests defending those assumptions.

Nick Gottlieb is a climate writer based in Squamish, BC and the author of the newsletter Sacred Headwaters. His work focuses on understanding the power dynamics driving today’s interrelated crises and exploring how they can be overcome. Follow him on Twitter @ngottliebphoto.

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