Four days last week were each hotter than the day before, but the future will be hotter yet. We didn’t change much to prevent it, so how will it change us?
The summer of 2019 was one of the hotter summers on record. That June, Delhi, India, set a high temperature record of 118.4°F (48°C). In Paris, France, schools closed and fire hydrants were turned into ersatz fountains at 104°F, and Siberia was literally on fire. Turns out, we were just warming up.
Last week, some 38 million Americans sweltered under heat alerts, and the rest didn’t fare much better. On four consecutive days, Earth’s average temperature was hotter than the day before, breaking unofficial records each day and culminating with a global average temperature of 63.014°F (17.23°C), as figured by the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer. (In the 1880s, the average was 56.71°F.)
A mere 63°F might sound like a rather pleasant day, but it’s worth remembering that this is an average that includes the Antarctic, with 24-hour night and a low of -90°F last Thursday, as well as places like Beijing, China, where all outdoor work was ordered to stop at 106°F, and North Grenville, Ontario, Canada, which opened hockey rinks as cooling centers at 90°F.
It’s even bigger (and hotter) in Texas, where a drunk-looking jet stream has been holding down a relentless heat wave since early June, pushing temperatures well into the triple digits and sending people to hospitals and early graves. (This is the same state that rescinded a law last month that gave construction workers a right to take water and shade breaks every four hours. Perhaps not all lives matter.)
With climate chaos now baked in, the hotter temperatures are going to change the way we live.
Infrastructure will have to change, at least if we want it to perform well. Extreme heat is expected to change precipitation patterns. Currently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) precipitation estimates are based upon averages that draw on data that is dangerously outdated, in some cases going back to the early 1800s. The climate is different now, and it’s rapidly changing for the worse. Infrastructure built to withstand conditions that prevailed decades ago may not weather the new normal, let alone what’s coming. If we’re lucky, the only cost will be wasted taxpayer or investor dollars and squandered resources, not human lives.
Water use and distribution will have to change. Squabbling between the Colorado River states will eventually be solved by nature if not by bureaucrats. Drought, however, doesn’t stop at rivers. Overpumping groundwater during drought conditions, which people will do for as long as they can just to keep living their lives, is linked to elevated arsenic levels in that groundwater. Arsenic is linked to a multitude of health problems, from hypertension and diabetes to skin lesions and cancer. Exposure can matter even before conception. And it’s going to affect ranchers, farmers, and drinkers of water throughout the dry West.
Food will have to change. Take corn (maize), for example. Thanks to a favorable climate, new high-yielding varieties, and agricultural intensification, corn harvests grew more than 500% over the 20th century. Directly or indirectly, that glut of corn became more people, people who then require that much food (or more) to maintain the population. People who, just by being alive and using things, increase the amount of atmospheric carbon, resulting in climatic chaos. However, as the world heats up, that huge corn harvest will not keep up. Even in a future of modest change, yields will shrink, since the corn developed for high yields is vulnerable to hotter temperatures. Worst case scenario is 50% smaller corn harvests by 2100, but remember, the climate emergency is unfolding even faster than scientists expected.
Farming will have to change. In India, which is experiencing hotter temperatures before the U.S. and serves as a sign of things to come, it’s already becoming so unbearable that farm workers regularly collapse in the field. Usually, the human body regulates its temperature through sweating, but once the temperature soars to 88°F+ with 95% humidity, sweating doesn’t work anymore and even a person at rest can die from organ failure relatively quickly. In places like India, Bangladesh, and Texas, such conditions may force farm workers, or people doing any outdoor activity, to stop or die.
The economy will have to change. Across Latin America, higher temperatures and drought mean people want to use more energy just as hydropower drops. There’s a similar effect here in the U.S. when people stay inside and blast the air conditioning, whether it’s due to the heat or because the air is polluted by smoke from wildfires (themselves made worse by hotter, drier weather). Not only does this cause a feedback loop that worsens climate change, it makes everything more expensive. Crops are less productive, energy prices rise, productivity is lost. If you think the U.S. is already too expensive, wait until the climate deteriorates further, and people leave countries with even worse effects to come here instead.
All of this may seem daunting, but it’s pretty mild right now compared to what’s down the road. As we face the storms ahead (literally and figuratively), let’s reflect upon the confidence our recent ancestors (and, indeed, many of our younger selves) had in us, today. There was a time when the worst effects could have been avoided, and the path ahead could have been different. However, the policy makers, politicians, business leaders, captains of industry, and many everyday citizens thought that the simpler changes they would have faced were too hard, too expensive. They didn’t want to. They left it for us, and for the children who will grow up in this new, hotter normal, figuring we could handle it instead.
Related: The Heat Is On