One of the biggest stories of 2023 is the heat; relentless record-setting heat across much of the United States and the world.
Canada has broken all-time wildfire records. Phoenix reached 110 degrees or higher every day in July for the first time. Ocean waters off south Florida hit 101 degrees this summer, the temperature in hot tubs. And heat waves have sent the mercury over 115 degrees from the Bay Area to Southern California in recent years, straining the power grid.
Scientists say El Niño conditions, coupled with climate change, are making heat waves more severe. That has major implications for public health, outdoor workers, and even America’s food supply. Palo Alto native Jeff Goodell examines the topic in his recently released book: “The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet,” a New York Times best-seller.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
Q: What’s your response to folks who say “Well, it’s always hot in the summer?”
A: Yes of course, it gets hot in the summer. But not this hot. We are breaking heat records all over the world. This is evidence of what climate scientists have been talking about for a very long time: The more fossil fuels we burn, the more CO2 (carbon dioxide) goes into the atmosphere, and the hotter the planet gets.
Q: How likely are these types of conditions to be in the coming years and decades?
A: The climate we grew up with and that we’re all used to is no longer part of our world. We’re moving into a new climate era of extreme temperatures and extreme events.
This kind of planetary weather chaos is going to continue to accelerate until we stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere. And then the temperatures will level off.
And what we’re seeing now, as everyone can see with their own eyes, are the impacts of just a relatively modest change in the temperature.
Q: California’s greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2004. Renewable energy is booming. And many European countries, along with California, are phasing out the sale of new gasoline-burning cars by 2035.
A: We are seeing a lot of movement. Ten years ago, when I would give talks about climate change and write stories about climate change, there was an economic argument: “We can’t afford renewable power or electric cars or anything like that because they’re all too expensive.” But now renewable power is cheaper to build virtually everywhere in the planet. Electric cars are becoming more and more popular, and cheaper and better. In Texas, the fossil fuel capital of America, 30% of the grid now is coming from renewable power. That’s all good. It’s just not happening fast enough. The oil and gas companies are doing everything they can to slow down this transition.
Q: How do you see this playing out in the next few decades? Are places like Phoenix going to be uninhabitable? Is there going to be mass migration from the hottest places in the world to countries that are cooler?
A: Phoenix is not going to be uninhabitable for everybody. You can live on Mars if you have the right kind of spaceships and the right kind of containers to live in. You can thrive at the bottom of the ocean for a little while. So people can live in Phoenix in hot temperatures. The question is who? And at what cost? And what happens to the people who can’t afford to live in air-conditioned bubbles all the time?
There are billions of people on this planet right now who don’t have air conditioning and are not going to have air conditioning in any foreseeable future. The guys who I just saw out on the street here in front of my house who are working to repave the asphalt, they’re not working in air conditioning, nor are our construction workers, nor the farm workers who produce our food. We can’t air condition the oceans, where much of our food comes from, or wheat and corn fields. There’s not a quick fix, except reducing CO2 emissions.
Q: What needs to be done going forward? I don’t think I’m hearing you saying it’s hopeless.
A: I am absolutely not a doomer. I don’t think there’s nothing we can do, or that this is some kind of extinction level event. There’s a lot we can do, starting with reducing fossil fuel emissions, and getting really serious about that. We have the technology. All we need is the political will.
We can change the kind of food we eat. We can change the politicians we vote for. We can change the cars we drive, or not drive cars at all. I mean, I find this to be a tremendous opportunity to think differently about the world we live in and how we want to build it.
Q: What about cities? Planting more trees to reduce the urban heat island effect? Building more cooling centers, and white roofs? And using reflective building materials like they have been developing at places like Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory?
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A: All those kinds of things are really important. Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles and other places are going to have to do this because as temperatures get hotter and hotter, they’re beyond the realm of what humans can tolerate.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a city official in Houston. He was saying that during the summer, they’re thinking about having to shift all construction projects to nighttime because it’s just too hot for workers to be outside during the day anymore.
Q: Is there a grand technical solution?
A: The most common idea when people talk about geo-engineering is the idea of using high-altitude aircraft to put small particles of sulfur or some other element into the sky, basically mimicking volcanoes. Volcanoes spew sulfate particles into the stratosphere and those particles act as reflectors, cooling areas.
But it’s a very dangerous, complicated idea. There’s a potential for all kinds of unexpected consequences. I think there are going to be enormous political battles about this.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: Whatever your views are about climate change and the source of this warming, it is happening, and it’s happening fast. We need to get smart about the implications of living with extreme heat because we’re going to be doing it whether we like it or not, for our own welfare and for our loved ones.
Position: Contributing editor, Rolling Stone magazine; Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow
Hometown: Palo Alto, Calif.
Residence: Austin, Texas
Education: B.A., English, UC Berkeley (1984); M.F.A., Columbia University (1990)
Five facts about Jeff Goodell
He has written about climate change and other environmental issues for the past 20 years
He has published seven books, including Sunnyvale (2000) a memoir about growing up in Silicon Valley.
He has appeared on NPR, MSNBC, CNN, CNBC, ABC, NBC, Fox, and The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss climate and energy issues.
In the 1980s, he worked as a technical writer at Apple in Cupertino.
His wife, Simone Wicha, is the director of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas.