Triple-digit heat is killing us and our economy: What to do?
This article first appeared in The Hill and is reposted with permission.
Weather conditions are setting up for a brutal heat wave over the Southern Plains of the U.S., with unusual heat likely bleeding further north, east and west. We’ve seen this before, but it’s getting worse almost every year as part of a regular summer succession of extreme heat waves, heat-supercharged megadrought, flash drought, water crisis and wildfire. Then as the summer wanes, the hurricane season will continue to tap the growing heat of the atmosphere and ocean to push to new heights of death and destruction. We’re causing the planet to rapidly heat up — and the heat is killing us, literally and figuratively.
Summer is the season of worsening extreme heat in the Northern Hemisphere. Last year, North America endured multiple heat waves, but the one in the Pacific Northwest captured the most headlines. Record-breaking heat led to over 1000 deaths in the U.S. and Canada. The same heat sparked wildfires that scoured thousands of square miles and even destroyed an entire town. All told, the heat wave caused almost $10 billion in damages, and research has determined that this disaster would not have happened without climate change.
What will the upcoming 2022 heat wave bring? The U.S. is not alone in facing this challenge. So far this summer, deadly heat waves have swept much of southern Asia and Europe. In March, April and May, a prolonged and deadly heat wave gripped India and Pakistan. May witnessed a record-breaking heat wave across Southern Europe as well. The Middle East also saw unprecedented heat. Unprecedented heat waves have also been roasting China since June, and now Europe is once again entering a wave of extreme heat across the continent and into the United Kingdom. As is often the case, drought and wildfire crises are inevitable companions to record heat.
More than any other climate extreme, the role of global warming in driving hotter and hotter heat waves is crystal clear. Farmers, water managers, public health experts and most citizens can recognize this connection just as easily as climate scientists. Recent research has revealed how climate change made this year’s record-breaking temperatures in India and Pakistan much more likely, and how continued climate change will increase the odds of even more extreme heat waves in the future. Similarly, the number of people exposed to extremely hot weather is rising fast everywhere — including in the U.S.
Increasing heat wave severity will extract a major toll on human lives and livelihoods. The human body can only take so much heat without damage; absent significant precautions, people working, living and recreating outdoors are highly susceptible. If a heat wave coincides with high air pollution, the risk of death jumps by 21 percent. Low-income and marginalized communities are hard hit, especially those who can’t afford the high cost of air conditioning. As more electricity is used for cooling, power outages from an overtaxed electricity grid can increase the human death toll.
I’ve already highlighted that the relentless increase in record heat is leading to more severe droughts, water crises and wildfires. And as every gardener and farmer knows, plants will wilt and die faster if there is too much heat and not enough water. Agricultural impacts of heat and drought will add to the potential of a global food catastrophe brought on by the war in Ukraine. The less affluent and marginalized communities around the globe will suffer the most, as staple foods become unaffordable or unavailable.
Our growing global warming and heat wave problem is scorching our economy in many ways, racking up a trillion-dollar-plus price tag in the U.S. alone. Impacts are often highest locally where extreme heat occurs, but global supply chains are also at increasing risk due to heat-supercharged extremes, including drought, wildfire, flooding and deadly storms. The growing number and severity of heat-driven extreme weather events around the planet are adding to the pressures that choke supply chains and drive inflation.
So, what can we do about our rapidly growing problem with extreme heat?
First, we can address the cause. We know why extreme heat and heat waves are getting worse. Climate change, caused mainly by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, is the primary reason we’re getting global warming and the relentless worsening of extreme heat events. A majority of Americans recognize that global warming is happening and that human activities are to blame. Climate scientists are near-unanimous in calling for a transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy and most Americans agree. We need Congress to act, now.
Only aggressive climate action can stop the trend to more extreme heat and the supercharged weather disasters that result. And only by acting on climate change will we keep the costs of the worsening heat crisis from getting higher in terms of human lives, suffering and our economy.
And while costs of oil and gas are skyrocketing, renewable energy and other clean energy technologies are only getting cheaper and cheaper. As an added benefit, leaving the fossil fuel era behind will deny Russian President Vladimir Putin and other petro-thugs the ability to fund their dictatorships and wars. Action on climate change has many benefits.
Jonathan Overpeck, Ph.D., is a climate scientist, professor and dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. He has researched drought, climate variability and climate change on five continents. Follow him on Twitter: @GreatLakesPeck