The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched
Planet Jeff Goodell 2023
"If there is one idea in this book that might save your life, it is this: The human body, like all living things, is a heat machine. Just being alive generates heat. But if your body gets too hot too fast- it doesn't matter if that heat comes from the outside on a hot day or the inside from a raging fever- you are in big trouble." Jeff Goodell
If climate change truly is coming, what will be the impacts of increased heat on our planet? What will happen to plants, animals, oceans, and humans? A lot of attention has been paid in recent years to melting glaciers, wildfires, violent storms, and rising tides, but not as much to just plain heat. How hot will it get in the next 20 to 30 years and how will that impact our lives? No one knows for certain, but as the planet heats up we are getting a preview of the effects of heat in certain areas of the planet.
The subject of heat and its consequences are the topic of the sobering new book, The Heat Will Kill You First, by Jeff Goodell. Mr. Goodell is a writer on climate change, having published seven best-selling books on the topic. He traveled to remote corners of the globe, including Antarctica, Alaska, Arizona, Texas, and India to document fascinating stories of survival and death.
I know books about climate change can be a depressingly hard read. Goodell sprinkles his chapters with helpful suggestions, and books like this contribute to the discussion that will continue for the rest of this century. If anything, reading this gives me a much better respect for the dangers of heat. When there is a heat warning, people need to pay attention. He tells the stories of people who discounted the risks of hiking or working during heat waves, with tragic results. Once the outside temperature goes above 95 degrees with the right amount of humidity, the human body relentlessly heats up. Our bodies evolved to only tolerate so much heat for so long, and then we suffer heat exhaustion and eventually heat stroke. Heat can kill you, and the hotter it gets, the riskier it becomes to spend large amounts of time outdoors.
Human beings evolved in temperate savanna's of Africa, and we have a set "Goldilocks zone" of comfortable temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything outside of that zone causes problems. Even small blips of heat in the 80s can cause lethargy, trouble with concentration, sleep problems, and increased violence and irritability. No wonder that riots, crime, and suicides spike during hot summer heat waves.
As the planet heats up, we become more and more dependent upon air conditioning, which tends to favor the rich and leads to poor people having to choose between cooling off or eating. These A/C systems do a wonderful job when they work, but they can be unreliable if the electric grid gets overloaded or people become unable to pay their bills. Will we have to open more cooling centers for ordinary people to ride out the hottest heat waves?
Goodell travels to two large metropolises, Phoenix, Arizona and Chenai, India to show how some of the citizens are coping. Cities are known as heat islands because the materials that make them up, concrete, asphalt and steel retain heat and there is little natural cover to absorb it. Cities are growing rapidly in population, and most have serious infrastructure and income inequality issues. There is much more that can and should be done to make buildings livable. Some areas, like Pakistan and parts of the Middle East are predicted to become unlivable by 2050 for significant periods of time. Where will these people go? Like the animals they will try to migrate to cooler areas and nations need to be prepared for when they do.
This book is an eye opener. Other topics touched upon that are byproducts of increased heat include:
- Massive changes to the world's oceans, including die offs of coral reefs and kelp forests. Major currents may change, and the world's weather is already being affected by how much heat the ocean is absorbing. The global average sea temperature reached a record in 2023 of almost 70 degrees and some areas near Florida topped 100! There was a patch of warm water in the Pacific known as the Blob, a concentration of hot water that is large enough to affect weather patterns in Washington, Oregon, and California.
- People who work outside for a living are facing increased risks to their health. While some employers supply water and cooling breaks, some do not- especially for migrant farm workers. This problem could shut down a lot of activity in the summer from sports to construction to outdoor concerts.
- Dangers from the heat include dangerous pathogens passed along by ticks, mosquitoes, and other vectors that didn't survive in the cooler climates of the past. We don't know the extent of this yet, but the entire ecosystem that we've adapted to over the past few centuries is changing rapidly. The change is much more rapid that evolution could ever adapt to, at least for humans.
Heat waves are becoming so substantial that they are now getting names, just like hurricanes have been getting. In 2023, Europe was hit by Heatwave Cerebus, a system that caused record high temperatures as large as 118 degrees in parts of Europe during July. Named heatwaves promise to get more media attention and cause more precautions. Heat domes can sit atop some areas for weeks, as seen in the Southwest US this past summer.
Most people now recognize that climate change is upon us. Fewer are willing to admit that fossil fuels are the cause and must be replaced, though the science is clear and this book confirms it. Even as we wean ourselves slowly from fossil fuels, heat will continue to be a threat and a killer. Everyone needs to take it seriously, even those protected indoors with cozy air conditioning. 90% of US citizens have access to air conditioning, while only 5% of India citizens do. The countries that contribute the most to carbon pollution are also the ones the most shielded from its effects. This imbalance causes problems getting things done, but you can't keep throwing money at heat. It needs to be dealt with now as a public health problem, and in the future as a true threat to survival for billions.
So instead of getting depressed by yet another grim climate change book, I felt energized and enlightened. There are solutions out there, and there is suffering that can be eased or prevented. Somehow we must pull together to figure it all out.
Here is a six minute video of the author discussing his findings