Too hot to handle

The dangerously hot future is here. How will we respond?


In the midst of a recent heat wave during which temperatures in New Delhi soared above 110 degrees Fahrenheit for several days, India passed an emergency law to facilitate restarting idle coal-fired power plants to meet spiking energy demand. Blackouts inhibited the use of fans and other cooling devices that help protect people from heat-related illnesses and deaths. At least 25 people had died in India, and more than 65 in neighboring Pakistan. Extreme times call for extreme measures, and the irony of having to burn more coal to protect the populace from extreme heat did not go unnoticed. 

View from the center of Yucca Flat, looking south, Areas 9, 7 and 3, Nevada Test Site, 1996. 37°3'10.83" N, 116°0'46.99" W.
Emmet Gowin, from his book The Nevada Test Site. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery

One year ago, a record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest also sent temperatures above 110 degrees for several days, killing nearly 200 people in Oregon and Washington. During this heat event, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called “astounding,” incarcerated people in prisons run by the Washington State Department of Corrections suffered unbearably hot conditions from which they could not escape, left to scorch inside their cells. (Read our investigation.) Extreme heat will increasingly become the norm, scientists say, inescapable for most, and so we must find ways to protect people from deadly heat stroke, heart attacks and other conditions exacerbated by heat without burning more fossil fuels. And we must see to it that such heat relief is distributed equitably. This means expanding climate justice activity while accelerating efforts to design and build renewable energy projects. We must be strategic about the placement of those projects, too, so that they will generate the maximum amount of power while doing the least amount of harm. This will likely require a mixture of public and private land — and some sacrifices, to be sure.

We needed a Green New Deal many years ago, but now would be better than never. And we need congresspeople and other leaders with the guts to take the actions necessary to protect their constituents from situations like last summer’s heat wave in the Northwest. Even if you are convinced that we’ll have another ice age eventually, this would still be a good investment, for if it comes to pass, we’ll face a very intense need to find enough energy to keep ourselves warm. If future speculation is your thing, you might enjoy this conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson, about experiencing landscapes in the present with a mind toward possible futures. It’s something we need to get much better at in order to combat the climate crisis. 

Jennifer Sahn, editor-in-chief

If we can’t think forward and imagine heat waves like the one in India happening more frequently and more intensely, we are going to miss the opportunity to preserve a livable environment here on planet Earth. And no matter what your politics, or how you feel about the way different energy sources might compromise certain species and certain landscapes, the prospect of the planet no longer being habitable for humans should give you pause. It won’t be the end of life on Earth. But it’s going to mean a lot of hardship and sacrifice of life — of people and species here in the West, and others halfway around the world.

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