In 2019, I happened to visit Phoenix on a 115 degree day. I had a meeting one afternoon about 10 blocks from the hotel where I was staying downtown. I cheerfully thought I would brave the heat and walk to it. How bad could the heat really be? I grew up in California, not the Arctic. I thought I knew heat. I was wrong. After walking three blocks, I felt dizzy. After seven blocks my heart was pounding. After 10 blocks, I thought I was gone.
That experience led me to spend the next three years researching and reporting a book about the dangers of extreme heat and how rising temperatures are reshaping our world. I talked to doctors about how when the core temperature of our bodies rises too high, the proteins in our cells begin to unravel. I sailed to Antarctica to see how changes in ocean temperature are accelerating the melting of glaciers, causing seas to rise and flooding coastal cities around the world. I talked to people in the slums of India and in furnace apartments in Arizona and in stiflingly hot attics in Paris. I caught mosquitoes in Houston and learned about how the spread of dengue and malaria is changed by warmer temperatures. I talked to engineers about how heat bends railroad tracks and weakens bridges. In short, I thought I had a pretty good idea of the effects of extreme heat in our world.
And then, in mid-June, a few weeks before my book was published, a heat dome settled over the entire Southwest as well as Mexico, breaking temperature records and turning asphalt to mush. I just moved to Austin, Texas. Yes, Texas is a hot place. But this was different. We’re talking heat index – the combination of temperature and humidity – up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Events disturbingly similar to what I reported elsewhere several years ago were happening in real time around me, such as hikers dying from the heat and thousands of dead fish washing up on Gulf Coast beaches (warmer water contains less oxygen, which makes it difficult). for fish to breathe). The red-faced despair on the faces of homeless people living under an overpass near me was eerily evoked by the red-faced despair I saw on the faces of people in India and Pakistan.
You can argue that Texas did this to itself. The planet is getting warmer because of the burning of fossil fuels. This is a simple truth, clear as the moon in the night sky. No state has benefited more from fossil fuels than Texas. Revenues from oil and gas production have long been central to the Texas economy and are at least partially responsible for the more than a $32 billion projected surplus in the 2024-25 budget of the state. And Texas is also responsible for broadcasting more than 600 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year, more than twice as much as any other state.
The heat dome made visible the barbarity of the political leadership of the state. More workers die in texas of high temperatures than anywhere else in the country. However, on the same day when it was so hot I didn’t want to go outside to check the mail until after dark, Governor Greg Abbott gave final approval to a law that will eliminate local ordinances requiring water breaks for construction workers. Despite the state’s massive budget surplus, many Texas prisons remain without air conditioning, turning cells into torture chambers on hot days.
If you are lucky enough and wealthy enough, it may not feel like a life-threatening force has invaded your world. this past week, records were set or tied on four consecutive days as the hottest days ever recorded on Earth. On Monday I happened to be sitting in an air conditioned coffee shop in Austin. All around me, people were sipping iced coffees and bottled water, seemingly unconcerned, as the heat outside beat mercilessly. In my neighborhood, where a couple tore down a modest house, cut down large shade trees and erected a McMansion with a heat-sucking black roof, massive air conditioning compressors hang from the side of the house like tactical weapons in the climate war.
In a way, Mr Abbott’s cruelty is not surprising. Many Texans see extreme heat as a weak enemy. At the height of the Texas heat wave, the official Twitter account for a Texas college football team featured a video of a fully fit player running sprints while dragging a heavy chain. “Working in that Texas heat,” boasted the tweet, followed by a fire emoji. How risking your life in the heat makes you a true cowboy.
Not far from my house is a gym called “HEAT Bootcamp” (the gym’s marketing: “Join the heat wave”). Here, enduring heat is a sign of inner strength (a throwback to medieval times, perhaps, when heat was linked to masculinity through what the philosopher Thomas Aquinas called “the elemental heat of the sperm”).
Fortunately, despite the high demand for electricity from everyone cranking up their AC, the Texas grid has held steady, largely due to the enormous number of solar panels that have come online in Texas in recent years. People flocked to Austin’s green spaces, especially the spring-fed Barton Springs pool, proving the value of cool public spaces. At the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin (where my wife is the director) a warm, lifeless courtyard was transformed into a shady, welcoming courtyard by the installation of a dozen elegant 40-foot tall structures in the shape of flower petals—proof, if such proof were needed, that a cool city can be a beautiful city.
Among climate activists and others concerned about the future of the planet, there is much talk now about the need for inspiring stories and hopeful solutions. I agree. We are not condemned. In fact, I think that the climate crisis is above all another opportunity to change how we think about our relationship with nature and build a happier, healthier, more just world.
But living under the Texas heat dome reinforced my view that we need to be clear about the scope and scale of what we are facing. The extreme heat that is cooking many parts of the world this summer is not a strange event – it is another step towards our burning future. The forest fires in Canada, the orange Blade Runner skies on the East Coast, the warm ocean, the rapidly melting glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica and the Himalayas, the high price of food, the spread of vector-borne diseases in unexpected places — it’s all connected. , and it’s all driven by rising heat.
We need to start seeing warm days as more than an invitation to go to the beach or hang out at the lake. Extreme heat is the engine of planetary chaos. We ignore it at our peril. Because if there’s one thing we should understand about the risks of extreme heat, it’s this: All living things, from humans to hummingbirds, share one simple fate. If the temperature they’re used to – what scientists sometimes call their Goldilocks Zone – rises too far, too quickly, they die.
Jeff Goodell is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet.”