People Know it Can Get Hotter, Right?

By: Nora Germain

If you’re a member of what’s known as “Climate Twitter” online (and I highly recommend you join), you have probably felt a formidable shift in climate news lately. I believe that this summer of 2021 will go down as one of several turning points not just in our planet’s climate history, but also in public opinion and realization of the crisis that we are in. The more time you spend looking away, the more time you don’t invest in preparing for the future. Climate Twitter is your friend.

The idea for this blog came from a tweet that I saw from climate scientist Dr. Elizabeth Sawin. It read, “It can get hotter. People understand that, right?” I instantly liked it, and it really got me thinking about how the media reports on heat waves, how society understands our climate, and the true horrors of climate chaos, which many North Americans in particular are just starting to get a taste of now.

It’s amazing to me that much of the news media still doesn’t reliably mention climate change in the context of dangerous heat waves. Last week severe heat waves occurred throughout the western United States as well as in many other places around the world including large parts of the middle east. Most reports don’t mention climate at all.

Because of this, the media has been criticized for using happy photos of people diving into pools or clinking drinks at the beach when heat waves break new records. Sadly, the reality is much more grim as heat waves can often result in infrastructure literally melting and breaking apart, people becoming extremely sick and dying, olympians collapsing, pets getting burned by asphalt or dying from heat, and crops failing, among other grave consequences. One town in Canada got entirely destroyed. 

It’s important that we take this crisis seriously and stop the anomaly-focused commentary that does not adequately connect the dots between and among nations and the similar tragedies occurring around the planet simultaneously. This commentary also does not connect dots like heat and drought, or heat and wildfires, and it also doesn’t explain that these trends were predicted for decades and they are likely to worsen. Next summer will not probably not magically be cooler than this one. The comfortable range of temperatures that we have depended on for hundreds of years is now gone. 

In fact, there is a fantastic meme that is going around the internet which shows two Simpsons characters talking. One says, “This is the hottest summer of my life.” The other says, “This is the coldest summer of the rest of your life.” Sadly, this is probably true, and it’s important for people to understand what we’re up against. We have shifted these paradigms. We are in a different climate now than we were before. This is the new normal, and unlike COVID, it cannot be fixed with a simple vaccine.

The recent U.S. olympic trials had to be halted in Oregon due to extreme heat and at least one athlete became so ill she had to be taken off the field in a wheelchair. I struggle to imagine how people of average health and ability would fair in these conditions if world-class olympians are unable to withstand these temperatures — especially in Oregon, one of the northernmost states. In 2019, races in Doha had to be postponed until midnight to avoid the heat. Is this fair to the athletes? Does this honor the sport? What about the fans?

One reason that summer 2021, although it has barely started, will become one of the turning points in terms of public awareness of the climate disaster is that we are starting to see schools closing due to extreme heat (over 120 degrees) — in Canada. If that sounds strange to you, then you’re on the right track because to my knowledge, this has never happened in any living person’s lifetime. This is a bad sign.

The title of this blog may seem obvious, but I really don’t think most people are grasping it. The climate has absolutely no obligation to stay within ranges that are palatable to human life. The climate doesn’t care about us. It’s governed by physics — not by idealist cultural and social norms. It’s very possible for Earth to become too hot for human life. The Earth can get as hot as physics allows, and physics is not on our side when it comes to greenhouse gases.

Furthermore, climate migrations have already begun. I’m sure many people in richer nations may not be comfortable calling themselves climate refugees or climate migrants, but if they have needed to move because their hometown or neighborhood became uninhabitable due to sea level rise, heat, a superstorm or some other climate-powered disaster, that’s exactly what they are. It’s estimated that up to 40% of the world’s population may have to eventually move because of extreme heat toward the equator, but extreme heat is already a society-stopping problem in the Pacific Northwest and Canada. That’s not anywhere near the equator. Where will all of these people go? Where would you go?

This means we are going to have to get a lot more aggressive with the way we fight climate change. That includes: 1. Rewilding, reforestation, and preserving our natural areas including oceans, 2. Using new technology to rapidly decarbonize every sector of the economy permanently, and 3. Working on ways to mitigate and survive the coming disasters. People will need air conditioning who didn’t need it before. People will need a lot of extra water. People will need to stay inside more often, or possibly move to higher ground. We may need to seal our homes ahead of coming wildfires, or purchase air purifiers so that staying inside is safe for our health.

Governments will need to do a lot more, as well, especially when it comes to subsidies and where those investments are made. Infrastructure needs to be moved or secured, away from sea level rise and away from heat. That also goes for extreme cold conditions. Things like sea walls could help with sea level rise, but they won’t solve the problem long term. We also don’t know how long these more extreme conditions could last, but it might be decades. I wish I had better news, but again, it’s physics. We are now starting to pay the price for our politicians suffering from a poverty of both ambition and integrity when it comes to climate. We have known about this crisis for at least 40 years. Now, the chickens have come home to roost.

With all of this going on, you’d expect that the world’s leaders would band together and do something more substantive, but unfortunately, despite recent summits and big promises, countries all over the world are, in a sort of psychotic suicide mission, planning to expand fossil fuel projects. See a thread that explains more here or check out the new piece by Bill McKibben entitled, “Everyone Wants to Sell the Last Barrel of Oil.” If you have a pulse, it will shock you, and possibly make you feel a bit sick.

In a recent study, more than one third of all heat deaths occurring in 43 countries are attributable to climate change. Climate breakdown is already killing people all over the world, and yet we still can’t find the political will to decarbonize fast enough. It’s not going to work to meet these goals 10 or 20 or 30 years in the future. Ask the people in Pakistan who are dying in 125 degree heat today if they can hold on for another decade or three (during which time conditions will worsen). I would predict their answer would be no. I’ll add here that most regular thermometers for outdoor purposes don’t even go that high. Another bad sign.

Amongst all this suffering, people still use the term “tree-hugger.” What is a tree hugger? Is it someone who understands the value of the forests? Is it someone who doesn’t want to die for another barrel of oil? Is it someone who understands that water and food and air are invaluable and that they are not guaranteed in an unstable climate?

Should we all not be tree-huggers now? Can this term, or the sarcastic meaning it implies, finally be put to rest? How is it possible that amidst all these crises that there are people who still don’t see the value of a tree standing in the forest, or a fish swimming in the ocean? How can it be that people don’t see a need to leave the remaining oil in the ground, and to cultivate a sense of empathy and compassion for people who are suffering now?

When I think of a tree-hugger I think of an average human being. I think of someone who understands that we cannot do this forever. I think of someone who is interested in science and who wants the world to be peaceful and plentiful. I think of a person who cares what happens to someone a thousand miles away, and cares for their neighbor, too. I think of someone who wants to see a rainforest or a coral reef living and thriving 50 years from now. If that sounds like you, then congratulations, you may be a tree-hugger, too.If you take anything away from this piece, please let it be that our climate does not owe us anything. It doesn’t know or care that it’s supposed to snow every winter in New York for Christmas, or that a 100-degree summer is survivable for most people but one that is 110 or 120 is not. It doesn’t know that oranges are supposed to grow in Florida or that the Colorado River provides life for 40 million people. It’s all about physics, and now the physics of our planet rests squarely in our hands. It’s not fair, it’s not easy, but it is in our power to solve this challenge and to save our society, to save the beauty and vibrancy of human culture. If they call you a tree-hugger for that, try to take it in stride!

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