Extreme heat is here to stay

How will we respond?

 

The other day I took a walk along the beach in the morning before the clouds lifted. A steady breeze and the moist coastal air kept things cool enough to warrant a jacket. The high that day reached a rather pleasant 69 degrees Fahrenheit. By afternoon, it was warm in the sun, cool in the shade and comfortable all around: 69 degrees is well within the temperature range at which a human animal can live and thrive. But 110 (the high in the coastal town of Quillayute, Washington, on June 28) is not; nor is 116 (the high in Portland, Oregon, on June 28); or 117 (Las Vegas, June 20); or 118 (Dallesport, Washington, June 28); or 119 (Phoenix, June 20); or 121 (Lytton, British Columbia, June 29); and especially not 125 (Needles, California, June 20); and forget about 130, one of the hottest temperatures ever recorded on Earth (Death Valley, July 11). During this spate of record-breaking temperatures in the West, hundreds of people died.

Cows at the Coronado Dairy’s feedlot in the Kansas Settlement area near Sunizona in southeastern Arizona. The feedlot is among the farm properties recently acquired by the Minnesota-based mega-dairy Riverview LLP.
The heat, and the number of records it set, was unprecedented. Many of the record-breaking highs occurred in America’s temperate rainforest, where historically summer temperatures have been comparatively cool. This is a reality check in a series of reality checks, putting the human species on alert that we appear to be pushing this planet beyond human habitability. Climate migration and the number of climate refugees are both on the rise, with the greatest hardships largely hitting those least responsible, including here in the West. But where is there to go if the heat reaches everywhere?

The 10 warmest years on record have all occurred in the last 15 years, nine of them within the last decade. And the heat waves of the future are projected to be hotter, more frequent and longer-lasting. According to a recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change, 37% of the heat-related deaths globally between 1991 and 2018 can be attributed to anthropogenic climate change. Like the temperatures themselves, this number, too, is sure to increase.

Jennifer Sahn, editor-in-chief
Most of us are implicated in the carbon-based economy, and many of us have at least some idea of what’s needed to slow, if not reverse, this trend. There are ways of powering our homes and transporting ourselves and the goods we consume that can reduce carbon emissions and put us on a path to becoming a carbon-neutral society. Here in the West, we have the knowledge, the technology, the money — and, above all, the very strong, very urgent need to tack hard in this direction. At stake is nothing less than the livability of the places we love — for humans as well as other beings — and the viability of the ecosystems that sustain us. But do we have the political will to confront the crisis that is happening all around us? Our society will be judged by how we respond to this moment of reckoning.

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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