Heat Kills. More Heat Kills More

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Over the last few years, the Atlantic Ocean and other parts of the world smashed their weathery fists into the faces of climate change deniers again and again until the denial of climate change fell to the mat, bleeding, and forever silent.

I wish. It wasn’t quite that extreme, but nearly so. In certain social settings, a person ranting about climate change, say a decade ago, would be looked at as though they might have a lose screw. Me, for example, at a family gathering. But a few weeks ago, a matriarch in my extended family, whom I might have expected to give me the stern look during one of my own rants, began ranting herself about climate change, and how astonishing it was that people could not see that it is real. I had to get her a glass of water. Times have changed. The big storms have spoken, and American society has listened, and at the very least, the deniers now look like the ones with the loose screw.

However, storms are not the biggest problem with future climate change. Sure, a storm can cause floods that kill hundreds of people. Sure, storms can carve away large sections of the shoreline, including those on which humans have built towns and cities, more so especially as sea level rises. Sure, strong tornadoes can destroy a storm shelter as though it wasn’t there, or pick up a school bus and throw it into a ravine, or whatever they want.

But storms are whiny babies compared to their own mothers, the weather-mother that causes the storms to be worse to begin with, and that will eventually become recognized as the real problem with global warming: heat.

Heat is a problem now. There are regions of the world where, normally, decades ago, people would now and then die, or perhaps just die sooner, because of the heat. Americans hear about heat waves in major cities, during which elders die in dozens. In 2018, 82 North Americans died during a late June and early July heat wave, which also killed 22 people indirectly when the Great North American Derecho plowed through the Midwest and the mid-Atlantic over an 18 hour period from June 29th through June 30th. So right there, we see storms vs. heat, and heat wins the morbid game of death by weather this one time.

Historically, some hundreds (like 500?) of Americans die of heat each year, with a lot of variation across time. But, most of the United States is temperate, most people live in shelters of some sort (houses and such) that give varying degrees of protection, often with air conditioning. With recent global warming, this number has more than doubled, but on a per-capita basis, the United States is not feeling the heat-death that other parts of the world are experiencing.

A recent study suggests that temperature, heat or cold, kills more than 5 million people a year. According to the research, published in The Lancet, just under a half million temperature related deaths are due to heat (more people die of cold). Right now, it is estimated that about a third of these deaths are an upward departure from normal, as the result of global warming, according to a study in Nature Climate Change.

There are large regions of the world where only a major investment of technology will allow people to live during the hot months, and that will eventually have to become human-free. Lots of humans live in those areas. Lowland regions in the middle east, Africa, and the more arid parts of South America for example. Some of these areas are currently sparsely occupied because of heat. But those nearly inhabited regions have few people in them because it is impossible to grow plants or keep animals, mainly. The reason for disinabiting these zones in a decade or so will be because it is simply too hot to not die of the heat, and those no-live zones will expand.

If we have experienced a recent shift in understanding of the importance of, and belief in the existence of climate change across secular society in the United States, the recent storms have to be recognized as part of the reason. In a sense, we can name the cause of this change in perception, and there are really several names: Harvey, Dorian, Michael, Maria, and Irma. Perhaps the increasing realization that heat matters too, and eventually, more, also come with names: Jonathan Gerrish, Ellen Chung, their child Miju and their dog Oski. This was the family that went hiking in California, and then died of the heat while on the trail. They were almost done with the hike, and succumbed to the temperature. In this case, the air temperature was comfortable when they started out the hike, and they brought a couple of liters of water with them. Later in the day, the temperatures soared past 100F/38C. They probably needed a couple or few liters each, rather than less than three for all of them.

This is nothing, right? Three people and a dog died of the heat, compared to a half million or so across the world in the same year. The same summer this family died, hundreds of other Americans, presumably scores of Californians, also died of the heat. The Garrish-Chung family are in the news not because they died or, exactly, how they died, but rather because they were found dead but their cause of death not initially apparent. People seem to die hiking in California a lot, partly because there are a lot of Californians and they seem to spend much of their time hiking or biking on the trails. So, now and then, a lion eats a biker, or a bear mauls a hiker (as happened recently to someone from my fair town in Minnesota, while hiking in Cali). This was yet another death by hiking, but involving a mystery, and the fact that it was an entire family, all the witnesses to this tragedy gone. So we pay attention, and can give death by heat, an increasing phenomenon that will eventually reshape the global configuration of human society, a name.

We are paused, partly because of the comeuppance delivered by Harvey and his windy and wet friends, on the edge of a dramatic shift in action to address climate change. The US Senator representing Coalworld, Joe Manchin has temporarily stopped us in the United States (may he be forever haunted by the ghosts of the Garrish-Chung family), but we will eventually roll over him like dirt-bike on dog shit. We must and I think we will electrify everything, and make that electricity mostly with wind and sunlight. We will regenerate the massively destructive agricultural landscape, experience a global demographic transition that limits population size, and gain control over our waste stream, so instead of it being a waste stream, it is a cradle-to-cradle cycle of stuff.

But only if we keep cool, focus, and fight.

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15 thoughts on “Heat Kills. More Heat Kills More

  1. Previously, I read that the death toll from the heat wave in the Pacific Northwest this June was 210. But the New York Times says it’s way more than that.


    In general, whether more people die of extreme heat or extreme cold has been a bone of contention. But it’s clear that the trend is for more high-temperature records and fewer low-temperature records. And as I like to point out, it’s easier to bundle up against the cold than to bundle down against the heat.

    1. The thing about that comparison (and it is bone of contention) is that it is an irrelevant comparison. They are two entirely different things, not two aspects of one thing. There is no meaningful ratio.

      It is interesting to contemplate vis-a-vis our evolutionary history, physiology, and basic mammalian biology, but the cold and the heat are distinct phenomena and they kill each in their own way.

  2. A recent study suggests that temperature, heat or cold, kills more than 5 million people a year. According to the research, published in The Lancet, just under a half million temperature related deaths are due to heat (more people die of cold). Right now, it is estimated that about a third of these deaths are an upward departure from normal, as the result of global warming, according to a study in Nature Climate Change.

    The Washington Post has a story on various health effects of climate change. It leads off with another report from The Lancet.

    In its annual “Countdown on health and climate change,” the Lancet provides a sobering assessment of the dangers posed by a warming planet. More than a dozen measures of humanity’s exposure to health-threatening weather extremes have climbed since last year’s report.


  3. “… the massively destructive agricultural landscape…”

    Say what ? What Kool-Aid have you been drinking?

    1. Agricultural landscapes are ecological deserts. Arguably, mass agricultural expansion has done more harm to nature by obliterating natural ecosystems than any other athropogenic process. Habitat loss and fragmentation are the result of agricultural land expansion. In turn, this has driven a mass extinction event, exacerbated by other human-mediated stresses.

      So, no Kool-Aid was drunk here. What Greg writes is completely accurate.

    2. That scenario you paint with broad brush does not comport with reality. The majority of lands in the US are agricultural, most are not under mechanized agriculture, and even the ones that are are host to robust ecologies.

    3. Which is not to say we could not do better. We could mandate windrows, the end of aqeuous manure lagoons, more till-free farming. We could mandate that CAFO manures be incorporated directly into soils, ie, make each CAFO a compost producer.

  4. Roger, I am an ecologist. Agricultural lands do not contain ‘robust ecologies’. They contain greatly simplified, faunally depauperated communities. They are also characterized by intensive applications of fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides. There is no doubt whatsoever that agricultural expansion in the US has pushed numerous species and populations to the brink of extinction. It has all but eliminated native tall grass prairie ecosystems. What is left of them cling to a meager existence along railway lines and in parking lots. The most productive agricultural lands are generally located in regions with low annual rainfall, making them at high risk of being converted to deserts. Also, the need to provide adequate water means that aquifers underlying them are literally sucked dry. The Oglalla aquifer is fast running out of water as is the aquifer underlying the China plain. When water availability is eventually limited to replenishment by rainfall, then the great breadbaskets of the US and China will be in deep trouble.

    Again, Greg’s description of agricultural landscapes as being ‘massively destructive’, at least in an ecological sense, is absolutely correct. You will not find many ecologists who disagree.

    1. Completely off-topic but: I had never heard of “depauperated” or its root before. Interesting.

    2. No doubt arable cropland is less diverse than what preceded it, but to describe it as an ecological desert is a bit hyperbolic. The ecosystems of farmlands are much more robust than, say, the Mojave, whose ecosystem is ironically considered sacrosanct by people against placing PV there. And again, arable lands are the minority of agricultural lands, and there is a fair amount of diversity even to that subset.

      I wonder what time scale Greg is using when he says that ” We will regenerate the massively destructive agricultural landscape”. That landscape is absolutely crucial for the next century or two at least and I have to say that I hope that is not his only characterization of our agricultural lands, because that is a pretty antagonistic perspective.

  5. As an addendum, Roger, would you say that banana plantations, oil palm plantations and mile after mile of soybean fields have ‘robust ecologies’? If not, then how can we say that mile after mile of wheat fields or corn fields also have ‘robust ecologies’? These are effectively monocultures and they harbor little diversity. Vast agricultural landscapes annihilate biodiversity, and the US is no exception. Agricultural expansion has been achieved through massive natural habitat destruction and fragmentation. Certainly, some ‘weedy’ species have prospered, as have habitat generalists, but specialists have been decimated. There is little need for me to elaborate, as there is plenty of empirical evidence to support what I say.

    1. I live in Vermont, so my experience of farmland is definitely not mile after mile of soybean fields. But I know that even in a large corn field, the soil is alive with billions of organisms of all stripes; there are insects and other arthropods and birds and mammals and reptiles. Most fields on small farms have windrows which support all sorts of animals. Small farms are banquets of biologic diversity. Same with pasturelands, rangelands, grasslands. Huge mechanized monoculture estates are in the minority of total agricultural land, because arable lands are a minority of total agricultural lands. You see ecosystems diminished; I see diversity on a smaller scale.

  6. Roger, agricultural soils are also greatly diminished in terms of diversity compared with natural soils. Much research (including among my colleagues) is focusing on soil microbial communities and how these vary among native and invasive plants and in various natural and managed ecosystems. One thing is unambiguously clear: intensive agriculture harms the soil macro- and microbiomes:



    In general, as the UN Environment Programme has pointed out, human food production and intensive agriculture has had a hugely negative impact on biodiversity. This really should not be hard to understand, as natural ecosystems have been cleared en masse for human food production, and current agricultural practices in many parts of the world rely on heavy uses of fertilizers and pesticides. We are arguably living on a poisoned planet, a legacy of the ‘green revolution’, and its reliance on environmentally destructive practices to wring as much productivity out of the land as possible.


    There is little doubt doubt that the plummeting abundance of many birds and other vertebrates and arthropods is due to continued agricultural expansion and attendant reliance on damaging technologies. Where farming has been more extensive, biodiversity has fared better, but industrial-scale agriculture is leaving a very toxic legacy that is exacerbated by other anthropogenic threats including climate change.

  7. I believe Greg’s point is that the factory-farming methods common in the United States are far from the optimum for preserving biodiversity — or even farmland.

    In his 2010 book Eaarth, Bill McKibben touts local communities and the labor-intensive sort of farming that was standard when this nation was formed. It has much to recommend it: not least that in a world where manufacturing jobs are outsourced and automation takes over many others, hands-on farming is one option for gainful employment that will persist.

  8. “In general, as the UN Environment Programme has pointed out, human food production and intensive agriculture has had a hugely negative impact on biodiversity.”

    An interesting sidelight to this comes from Richard Pearson’s 2011 book Driven to Extinction. Dr. Pearson cites the work of ecologist Blake Suttle in the Angelo Coast Range Reserve of California’s Mendocino county. When he irrigated a patch of land, biodiversity first rose for two years but then declined as grasses took over and reduced the nutrient value per square foot. After five years it was half what it had been.


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