As the World Slowly Cooks

What sort of a summer are we in for? That depends on where you stand in a latitudinal sense. The more distance between you and the equator the better off you'll likely be for it could be a scorcher.

A professor from Georgia Tech, Brian Stone, has emerged as a leading voice on urban heatwaves and he says there's not a single city in America that's prepared for the heatwaves that are coming. Stone points out that the death rates will be highest for the poorest and visible minorities.

Dr. Stone says urban dwellers in his country are exposed to a double whammy of massive heatwaves coupled with power outages. He notes that the poorest have the worst access to air conditioning and, even those with a/c often can't afford the electricity bill.

Power failures have increased by more than 60 percent since 2015, even as climate change has made heat waves worse, according to the new research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Using computer models to study three large U.S. cities, the authors estimated that a combined blackout and heat wave would expose at least two-thirds of residents in those cities to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

And although each of the cities in the study has dedicated public cooling centers for people who need relief from the heat, those centers could accommodate no more than 2 percent of a given city’s population, the authors found, leaving an overwhelming majority of residents in danger.

Stone's team from Georgia Tech, University of Michigan and University  of Guelph studied three cities: Atlanta, Detroit and Phoenix. 

Crucially, the researchers wanted to know how hot the insides of homes would get under those conditions — something that Dr. Stone said had never been tried before. They collected data showing the building characteristics for every single residential structure in each city — for example, building age, construction material, level of insulation and number of floors.

The results were alarming. In Atlanta, more than 350,000 people, or about 70 percent of residents, would be exposed to indoor temperatures equal to or greater than 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the level at which the National Weather Service’s heat classification index says heat exhaustion and heat stroke are possible.

In Detroit, more than 450,000, or about 68 percent, would be exposed to that indoor temperature. In Phoenix, where a vast majority of residents rely on air-conditioning, the entire population would be at risk — almost 1.7 million people.

Even without a blackout, some residents in each city lack access to air-conditioning, exposing those residents to dangerous indoor temperatures during a heat wave. Those numbers range from 1,000 people in Phoenix to 50,000 in Detroit, based on the characteristics of their homes, the authors found.

The authors reported that each city had designated public cooling centers for extreme heat. But they found that in each case, those centers could accommodate just 1 percent to 2 percent of the total population.

And none of the three cities requires those cooling centers to have backup power generators to run air-conditioners in case of power failures.

“We find that millions are at risk,” Dr. Stone said. “Not years in the future, but this summer.”

Meanwhile, the World Meteorological Organization, WMO, estimates there's a 40 per cent chance of at least one year between now and 2025 exceeding the current "do not exceed" temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Leon Hermanson, a senior Met Office scientist, told BBC News that comparing projected temperatures with those of 1850-1900 shows a clear rise.

"What it means is that we're approaching 1.5C - we're not there yet but we're getting close," he said.

"Time is running out for the strong action which we need now."

Hmm, I wonder if by "strong action",  Leon means new bitumen pipelines to tidewater?

Of course a brief spike doesn't mean we're doomed.

Prof Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist at the University of Reading, told me that if the new forecast is proved right "it does not mean that we have exceeded the Paris Agreement limit".

He points out that two individual months in 2016 saw a rise of 1.5C.

"As the climate warms, we'll get more months above 1.5C, then a sequence of them, then a whole year on average above 1.5 and then two or three years and then virtually every year," Prof Hawkins said. 

"We have to set a line in the sand to try to limit the temperature rise but we clearly need to recognise that we're seeing the effects of climate change already in the UK and around the world and those effects will continue to become more severe."

And we are indeed seeing the effects of the climate crisis around the world. India is a fine example. The Indian Ocean is warming rapidly. The knock on effect of that will be an increase in the frequency and intensity of cyclones.

The rapid intensification of weak storms into severe cyclones has been observed in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal over recent years. But the current forecasting models do not pick up rapid intensification in advance, posing a huge challenge to both disaster management authorities and the public in responding to the risk adequately, according to Roxy Matthew Koll [of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology].

“Climate projections show that the Arabian Sea will continue to warm at a faster rate than what we have seen before, and there will be more extremely severe cyclones in the Arabian Sea,” he added.

India is especially vulnerable as 14% of its 1.3 billion population live in coastal districts, and the number living in coastal areas below 10 metres elevation is forecast to rise threefold by 2060.

In Central America, the vulnerable population is enduring a trifecta of Covid-19, street violence and climate change that is sparking the beginning of a mass migration northward. More here (Brookings), here (Duke), and here (Wilson Center).  It's a humanitarian disaster and the US is not putting out the welcome mat.

It was just eight years ago that Camilo Mora's climate lab at the University of Hawaii warned of a new phenomenon setting in that they called "climate departure." 

“The changes from greenhouse gas emissions on the Earth’s climate system ain’t pretty and they do not come alone,” said Camilo Mora, an environmental scientist at the University of Hawaii and lead author of research that found climatic extremes are causing 400 different types of impacts upon humanity.

These threats are making people “unhealthy, thirsty, poor and homeless”, Mora said. “Climate change is like a horror movie with 400 endings to choose from.”

Why we have to stop living in the Holocene. That ship has sailed.

“All of the systems that society depends on were designed to function in the climate of the past,” said Amy Snover, a climate scientist at the University of Washington who recently sealed herself inside her Seattle home for 11 days because the wildfire smoke outside was too toxic to breathe.

Snover added: “But we no longer live in the climate of the past. The climate disruption brought by warming, changes in precipitation, changes in storms and changes in sea level is destabilizing the foundation of all these systems at once.”

Millions of Americans are now being affected, to some degree, by climate breakdown but the consequences are landing most heavily upon people of color and those without the means to easily recover from losses.


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