When it gets too hot, things die

Heat is a silent, stealthy killer. As climate change accelerates, the regions in the world becoming too hot for human habitation or even survival are set to expand rapidly. US journalist Jeff Goodell has been on the climate beat for decades and I filed this review of his book for the Business Post in October.

THE HARSHEST truth about life on a rapidly heating planet is this: “as temperatures rise, a lot of living things will die, and that may include people you know and love”. This is how environmental journalist Jeff Goodell sets out his stall.

Heat is a stealthy but relentless killer. As temperatures rise, “the sun feels like the barrel of a gun pointed at you. Plants look like they’re crying. Birds vanish from the sky…the air smells burned.”

Extreme heat, Goodell writes, is an entirely human artifact, “a legacy of human civilisation as real as the Great Wall of China”. In publishing, timing is everything. His book, ’The heat will kill you first’ has been propelled to the top of the US bestseller list as its release coincided with scorching temperatures worldwide. 2023 is on target to be the hottest year ever recorded globally.

There is a paradox at the heart of our relationship with heat. For those of us living in cooler climes like Ireland, the arrival of a heatwave is treated like an unofficial national holiday. News media persist in illustrating stories about dangerous heatwaves with images of people sunning themselves on the beach.

“The way we communicate about extreme heat is often distorted by nostalgia for a climate that no longer exists”, Goodell’s eminently readable book argues. “Part of this distortion has to do with the simple fact that people love warm weather”.

For the last several thousand years, Earth has enjoyed a remarkably stable climate, which scientists describe as ‘Goldilocks’ conditions – not too hot, not too cold. This era is now at an abrupt end.

The benign conditions that allowed agriculture to flourish are also disappearing. As global temperatures rise, yields of food staples such as wheat and rice decline. Livestock are vulnerable too. In the summer of 2022, thousands of cattle in feed lots in Kansas died as a result of extreme heat.

The spectre of hunger is returning. In 2019, around 145 million people worldwide faced acute food insecurity. By last year, that number had almost trebled, to 345 million.

In the US, some 30 million acres of land is given over to growing crops to fuel cars and trucks, while globally, aquifers are being pumped dry, often to grow water-intensive crops such as alfalfa to feed to cattle.

Until relatively recently, it was considered impossible to establish whether any specific extreme weather event could be definitively linked to climate change. That is no longer the case. The new science of extreme event attribution allows almost real-time assessments to be made.

“Extreme event attribution is the first science ever developed with the court in mind”, according to climatologist, Dr Friederike Otto, a pioneer in this field. Asked if she thought companies like ExxonMobil could ever be held liable in a court for deaths in an extreme heat wave, Otto replied: “Not only can I imagine it, I believe it will happen sooner than you think”.

Higher global temperatures are a boon for many species humans regard as dangerous pests, such as mosquitoes, and with them, tropical diseases like malaria and dengue are sweeping northwards.

Pine beetles are thriving in warming climates. For them, “the heat was like guzzling Red Bull. Their metabolism revved up and they moved like a marauding army through thousand-acre stands of Jeffrey pines”.

For Goodell, who has spent decades covering the environmental beat and is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, global warming “is the great story of our time, one that I feel privileged to tell. Yes, it gets dark sometimes, but it is also endlessly inspiring”.

Goodell’s taut, accessible journalistic style infuses the narrative with urgency, sweeping the reader from crisis to crisis while also relating the human stories of the marginalised, such as migrants and farm labourers, who are bearing the brunt of the suffering as the mercury ratchets up relentlessly.

Various adaptations are being explored in a bid to cope with rising temperatures, from air conditioning to moving food production under glass, but Goodell cautions that unless we drastically cut the fossil fuel emissions driving this crisis, all will ultimately be in vain.

“In the end, there’s no getting around the laws of physics and biology. When it gets too hot, things die. That’s just how it works”.

The Heat Will Kill You First
By Jeff Goodell
Little, Brown, $29

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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