Heat wave bakes one-third of Americans, highlighting urgency of climate legislation

A Salvation Army hydration station sign gets hit by the midday sun as temperatures climb to near-record highs, Monday, June 19, 2017, in Phoenix.

There have always been heat waves. They typically showed up in July or August, covered a limited area and were gone in a few days. But as we wrote a year ago when the Pacific Northwest blistered under record-shattering heat, this is not your grandparents’ climate. A look at this week’s national heat map can’t leave any but those in deepest denial feeling sanguine about the climate crisis.

As more than 100 million Americans face withering heat, it is time to ring the alarm bell yet again, only louder and more urgently. We’ve been kicking the can for so long that we’re now running out of road for stabilizing temperatures below internationally agreed-upon levels. Like the public outcry over the recent rash of murderous gun violence, can this time be different?

Can this be the moment that our elected representatives finally awaken to the urgency of the climate emergency and deliver the action Americans are calling for?

One of the clearest impacts of a warming climate is the increase in extreme heat. It’s been observed across the globe, and projections are that it will get much worse unless we act to rapidly reduce heat-trapping emissions. A recent analysis co-authored by one of us found that heat stress is expected to become more severe due to an increase in the frequency, duration, severity, geographic extent, as well as length of extreme heat and humidity.

Climate disruption is also bringing temperatures that our human bodies simply cannot tolerate. We cool ourselves by producing sweat, which evaporates from our skin, pulling heat from our bodies into the air. But when the air is not only extremely hot but also very humid, the sweat can’t evaporate and cool us down as quickly, and the damage to our bodies can be fatal. Some places on Earth are already experiencing conditions this hot and humid, and more will soon. Children and the elderly are particularly at risk.

Human-caused climate disruption is making extreme heat waves hundreds of times more likely, greatly increasing the odds of events like the one we’re suffering through now. In a disturbing twist on “The Hunger Games” blessing, the odds will not ever be in our favor going forward, unless we rapidly slash heat-trapping emissions.

While other climate-change-fueled disasters like hurricanes are more visually dramatic, extreme heat is invisible and silent, but very costly in both lives and dollars. Extreme heat caused more deaths on average in the U.S. than hurricanes and floods combined over the past 30 years. Heat’s impact on the U.S. economy in 2020 was $100 billion in worker productivity losses alone. That’s projected to double by 2030, and reach half a trillion dollars by 2050. That’s 1 percent of U.S. GDP, and that’s only one dimension of heat’s impact.

To raise awareness around heat waves and alert people to how they can stay safe amid dangerous heat, it’s been suggested that we name and categorize them, like we do hurricanes. And speaking of naming, when the news media report on heat waves, and when we talk about them, we should name what, specifically, is causing them to become hotter, longer-lasting, more widespread and more frequent. And not just some vague “human activities,” but global heating, caused predominantly by the burning of fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. Far too often these clear links are left out of our discussion.

Bringing these two ideas together, it’s been suggested that as we consider naming extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change, we choose names that call out companies and politicians who have denied climate science and blocked action to tackle the crisis: Names including Exxon, which was aware of climate change 45 years ago, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a leading denier of climate change along with many other lawmakers, and Koch Industries, one of the top U.S. corporate polluters

This week’s heat wave highlights the urgency of passing strong climate legislation now. The Build Back Better Act would have been an excellent first step, but it was stalled by one man: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Talks are now underway to revive many of the climate measures in that bill and get us back on track to speeding-up the clean energy transition. As we swelter through the days to come and a summer ahead that is sure to be rife with more disasters supercharged by climate change, let us remember the names of those who have brought us to this moment, and more importantly, those, like Manchin, who can still help us find our way out.

Susan Joy Hassol is director of the non-profit Climate Communication. She publishes Quick Facts on the links between climate change and extreme weather events. Follow her on Twitter: @ClimateComms

Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University. He is author of “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.” Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelEMann

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