New Study Predicts Millions of Americans May Become Exposed to “Off the Charts” Heat

Yves here. This Real News Network story, keying off the astonishing heat wave now underway in Europe (108 degrees in Paris which has pretty much no air conditioning in residential buildings), highlights the driving factors and how they are expected to play out in the US in coming decades.

DIMITRI LASCARIS This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network from Montreal, Canada.

This summer, the climate news cycle has been dominated by two searing heat waves that have afflicted Western Europe. In one European city after another, the record for the all-time high temperature has been broken. Just today, July 25th, the record for the highest temperature in Paris, France was broken again. In the slight, the temperature soared today to a remarkable 42.4 degrees Celsius, or 108.3 degrees Fahrenheit. As Western Europe has been baking in the unprecedented heat, experts from the Union of Concerned Scientists issued an alarming new report about future levels of extreme heat back in the United States. According to that report, in less than 20 years, millions of people in the United States could be exposed to dangerous “off the charts” heat conditions of 127 degrees Fahrenheit or more. For those of you who deal with Celsius, that is nearly 53 degrees. The report goes on to predict that in 60 years, over one-third of the US population could be exposed to such conditions, posing unprecedented health risks.

Now here to discuss this with us is Michael Mann. Michael is a Distinguished Professor and Director of the Earth Science Systems Service Center at Penn State University. He’s the author of several books. Perhaps most famously in 2012, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. And most recently, The Tantrum That Saved the World, a children’s book on climate change which he co-authored with Megan Herbert. Michael joins us today from State College in Pennsylvania. Thank you for coming back on The Real News, Michael.

MICHAEL MANN Thanks. It’s great to be with you.

DIMITRI LASCARIS Michael, before we get into the meat of the report, I’d just like you to briefly explain for our audience the concept of the heat index, which takes into account not only temperature but also humidity. Why is humidity important for the purposes of human health?

MICHAEL MANN You know, the more humid the air is, the more difficult it is for you to evaporate moisture into the atmosphere. When you perspire, that is one of the ways that the human body cools off— by producing liquid water that then evaporates into the atmosphere that transports heat away from you into the atmosphere. It’s a way of cooling off. And the more humid the air is, the more difficult it is for that moisture to evaporate from you, so it’s more difficult to cool down. This is particularly a problem for the elderly and for infants who are especially prone to heat stress. And so it’s really that combination of the heat and the humidity that threatens human health. And the heat index is one way to try to combine those two things into a measure of how unhealthy that heat is.

DIMITRI LASCARIS Now this report examines three future scenarios. In the worst-case scenario, we take no action to reduce emissions. In the second less heinous scenario, we take slow action to reduce emissions. And in the best-case scenario, we take rapid action to reduce emissions. I’d like to talk to you first about the worst-case scenario because regrettably, that appears to be the path the United States administration is on. In the no-action scenario, what changes according to this report can the US anticipate in terms of extreme heat during the next [inaudible]?

MICHAEL MANN Yeah. Well, the good news is that these scenarios don’t really separate until a couple decades out there. So there’s still time for us to get on the right path, but you’re absolutely right. The current administration has essentially dismantled much of the progress that we had made under the previous administration in meeting our obligations under the Paris treaty and in bringing down our carbon emissions here in the US. The good news though is that because of what states, and cities, and businesses, companies, corporations are doing, we may still meet our Paris obligations. Now, that’s not enough.

If we are to avert ever more catastrophic warming of the planet to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, or ideally one and a half degrees Celsius, which many of the experts who’ve looked at the impacts of climate change have said that that’s really where we start to truly get into the danger zone. If we’re to avert those catastrophic levels of warming, then we need to be bringing our carbon emissions now down dramatically beyond what is committed in the Paris Agreement. So we’ve got a lot of work to do, but there is still time to do it. If you crunch the numbers, what you find is we can still bring that emissions curve down. Ramp that curve down fast enough to avoid crossing the threshold of truly dangerous planetary warming.

DIMITRI LASCARIS I’d like to break down, just so our viewers understand, what’s at stake here according to this report. If we don’t do that, if we end up on a business as usual path for decades to come, what kind of changes can Americans anticipate in terms of the frequency and severity of extreme heat according to this report?

MICHAEL MANN Yeah. I use a simple rule. If you want to have an idea of what we will be facing by the middle of this century absent concerted action on climate change, then what we think of today, what we perceive, what we describe as record heat or a record heat wave— in a few decades, we will simply call that summer. The typical summer day will be like the most extreme day that we have seen in our lifetimes at this point. And what unusual heat, record heat, will look like at that point, we don’t even have an analog for that. And so, clearly if we continue on that path, we’re venturing into dangerous territory where a substantially large part of the planet basically becomes uninhabitable to human beings. And obviously, when you take a growing global population, less land, less food and water because of the aggravating impacts of climate change on those as well. You’re talking about unprecedented levels of conflict. It’s a future that we don’t want to see. The good news is there’s still time to make sure that that is not our future.

DIMITRI LASCARIS You talked a little bit, when we talked about the heat index and the effects of humidity, about the health effects. Could you talk more broadly about the health effects of extreme heat and who are the most vulnerable from a health perspective and why?

MICHAEL MANN Yeah. So the most vulnerable as I said, are the elderly, infants whose bodies are least able to cope with extreme heat. But ironically, there’s also a sort of, you know, there is a distinction when it comes to the impacts of extreme heat and extreme weather events. There’s an important distinction between those of us in the industrial world where we have all this infrastructure to protect ourselves from these weather extremes. We’ve got air conditioning here in the US. We can retreat from the heat.

In a large part of the world, they don’t have that infrastructure. And so, these extreme weather events, this extreme heat is far more dangerous to them. The irony is that they had the least role in creating this problem in the first place. The developing world had the least role when it comes to the carbon pollution from industrialization that has warmed the planet and created these conditions. There’s an important ethical dimension here, which is those who had the least role in creating this problem are the ones who are going to bear the brunt of it, at least in the near-term.

DIMITRI LASCARIS And of course, you know, Michael, the opponents of rapid action on climate change like to tout these supposed economic costs of action. Could you talk just a little bit about the economics effects of extreme heat? And how in particular in a developed economy, like the United States, rapid increases in the severity and the frequency of extreme heat could have detrimental economic impacts in even a developed country, like the United States?

MICHAEL MANN Yeah, absolutely. You know, people, at least the critics like to talk about the cost of taking action. But as you allude to, the cost of inaction— of not acting on this problem— is far greater and we’re seeing the toll that climate change is already taking in the form of these extreme weather events, extreme heat, and drought of course that leads to massive damage to agricultural yields. In the Western US and the Midwestern US in recent years, we’ve seen damage to crops from a combination of unprecedented heat and drought, wildfires that destroy infrastructure, super storms that inundate our coastlines, more extreme rainfall events because a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture.

 All of these things are taking a tax on our economy that can be measured in hundreds of billions of dollars already here in the United States, hundreds of billions of dollars a year. And that will only become greater if we don’t act on this problem. So the point here is you don’t have to use your imagination to see that the cost of inaction, which we’re seeing play out in real time on our television screens and our newspaper headlines, is far greater than the cost of taking action.

DIMITRI LASCARIS And lastly, Michael, I want to return to the subject I mentioned at the top of the interview, which is the heat waves in Europe. Is the scientific community confident that these two quite extraordinary heat waves in Western Europe are linked in some way to climate change? And if so, why are they confident of that?

MICHAEL MANN Yeah. So at a basic level, we can say that the warming of the planet has made every heat wave worse. We’ve warmed up the planet about a degree and a half Fahrenheit, a degree Celsius, so every single heat wave has that extra amount of warmth already built into it. And that means that we see these extreme heat waves now far more often than we would have if we hadn’t warmed up the planet. So that’s not rocket science; that’s just basic statistics. You warm up the planet, you’re going to get more frequent and intense heat waves. But there is another factor here and it relates to research that my colleagues and I have done in recent years.

There’s an added factor here which is sort of the slowing down of the jet stream and the fact that these huge weather systems get stuck in place. These big high-pressure systems, these high-pressure domes that give us the extreme heat and drought and wildfire that we’ve seen in the Western US and Europe. And then the flip side of that, troughs, these deep low-pressure systems that are associated with extreme rainfall. And here in the Eastern US, we’ve seen record rainfall over the last year or so associated with this very persistent tendency for a trough. These big weather systems get stuck in place. They don’t get moved along. And so, the same location either gets baked by the sun day after day after day, or gets dumped on with rain, with record rain day after day after day. And those are the sorts of conditions that give us these unprecedented, persistent extreme weather events. That has played a role in many of these extreme weather events we’ve seen in recent years.

We know that this phenomenon, the slowing of the jet stream, and it relates in fact to the warming of the Arctic, which changes temperature patterns in a way that slows down the jet stream and gives us more of these stuck weather patterns. So what happens in the Arctic is actually having an impact on us down here in the middle latitudes. That factor did play a role in the first of these two heat waves. A very stuck high-pressure system over Europe for, you know, a number of days on end that gave us those extreme conditions. This latest heat wave, it’s too early to say if that particular factor played a role, but just the fact that we’re seeing these extreme heat waves, you know, now multiple extreme heat waves during the same summer, is a testament to how profound the impact of the warming of the planet now has become when it comes simply to the day to day weather that we see.

DIMITRI LASCARIS Well, we were speaking to leading climate scientist Michael Mann about two recent heatwaves in Europe and a new study relating to extreme heat in the United States in the decades to come. Thank you very much for joining us again on The Real News, Michael.

MICHAEL MANN Thank you. Always a pleasure.

DIMITRI LASCARIS And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network.