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.