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The Heat is Happening
David Hsu, 7 Aug 06

Much of the eastern United States, including New York, Chicago, and most of the East Coast, has been wilting under a heat wave this past week. This follows last week's heat wave in California that is now suspected of killing over 160 people; and that followed the much-publicized heat wave and blackout in New York two weeks ago that left "100,000 people in western Queens in muggy darkness last month". The website Think Progress further details the heat waves that have hit most parts of the United States already this summer, as well as the Czech Republic, Britain, and Germany, and immediately makes the connection to global warming.

Are heat waves on the rise in terms of frequency as a result of global warming? Though global warming is certainly occurring, climate scientists tend to stick to probability when talking about particular climate events. Our allies at RealClimate.org don't have a post on this subject yet, though we'd certainly appreciate one. Two widely reported articles from the APand NBC cite a number of different scientific sources on the possible connections between heat waves and global warming. For those of you who want to browse global extremes and hazards at home (that is, Weather Channel types, you know who you are), you can check out the NOAA National Climate Data Center's (NCDC) page on global hazards and extremes.

Here, however, is the take-away: Heat waves seem to be rising in severity, and may be the first signs of how our cultures will adapt to a warming world.

As the Pew Center on Climate Change writes (in its typically bland manner), "well-publicized death tolls from heat waves in 1995, 1998, and 1999 have focused public attention on the effects of warmer temperatures on human health,", referring to the estimated number of deaths in Chicago (600), the southern United States (200), and the eastern United States (500), respectively. The greatest recent disaster, however, was the 2003 heat wave in Europe that is estimated to have killed nearly 15,000 people in France, and between 20,000 and 35,000 excess deaths over the entire continent.

Now, with all of that background in hand, what is interesting is what the heat is doing to people everywhere, and how it is changing how we think, talk, and react to the sheer, inescapable somatic experience of heat. We've already written about how we stand at a 'teaching moment' regarding global warming, with the success of "An Inconvenient Truth", Tom Brokaw's special on the Discovery Channel, and the cover of Time magazine. However, what's also really interesting are the myriad ways in which people have to reconsider their actions, lifestyles, and perceptions in the face of their physical discomfort.

A 'happening' in the classic art sense "juxtapos[es] a variety of aural and visual material in a non-representational manner, with the aim of moving the spectator at an unconscious rather than a rational level" (Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought). These heat waves juxtapose unfamiliar intellectual, social, and economic connections between energy use, cooling, comfort and safety; what makes them fascinating both in the media and at the water cooler (of course) is that it affects everyone in a region (or country) simultaneously, despite our best cooling technologies, and you get responses ranging all over the geographic and media map. For example, in the past week you had blogs reporting on strains on the entire U.S. power grid , Bloomberg and the BBC news reporting on soaring natural gas prices as result of air conditioner use in the U.S., and news outlets from Toronto to Sacramento to Philadelphia talking about urban heat island effects. The New York Times' recent reporting on the heat waves, and the responses to actual and possible
blackouts, makes clear that city officials at the local level are taking seriously the risk of power grid failure posed by intense energy usage. There have even been viral e-mails and fast-spreading rumors about the heat.

Of course, though heat affects all of our social interactions, heat doesn't affect everyone the same way. Eric Klinenberg's 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, details how gaps in Chicago's infrastructure and social systems were exposed by the sudden impact of the heat wave (from an excellent interview with the author here):

The ethnic and racial differences in mortality are also significant for what they can teach us about urban life. The actual death tolls for African Americans and whites were almost identical, but those numbers are misleading. There are far more elderly whites than elderly African Americans in Chicago, and when the Chicago Public Health Department considered the age differences, they found that the black/white mortality ratio was 1.5 to 1...
Another surprising fact that emerged is that Latinos, who represent about 25 percent of the city population and are disproportionately poor and sick, accounted for only 2 percent of the heat-related deaths. I wrote Heat Wave to make sense of these numbers—to show, for instance, why the Latino Little Village neighborhood had a much lower death rate than African American North Lawndale. Many Chicagoans attributed the disparate death patterns to the ethnic differences among blacks, Latinos, and whites—and local experts made much of the purported Latino "family values." But there's a social and spatial context that makes close family ties possible. Chicago's Latinos tend to live in neighborhoods with high population density, busy commercial life in the streets, and vibrant public spaces. Most of the African American neighborhoods with high heat wave death rates had been abandoned—by employers, stores, and residents—in recent decades. The social ecology of abandonment, dispersion, and decay makes systems of social support exceedingly difficult to sustain...
Chicago had such a high mortality rate because it is, as Mayor Daley quipped during the heat wave, the classic American city of extremes. It is a city of great opulence and of boundless optimism, but—as William Julius Wilson says—Chicago also suffers from an everyday "emergency in slow motion" that its leaders refuse to acknowledge. The heat wave was a particle accelerator for the city: It sped up and made visible the hazardous social conditions that are always present but difficult to perceive. Yes, the weather was extreme. But the deep sources of the tragedy were the everyday disasters that the city tolerates, takes for granted, or has officially forgotten.

Similarly, the 2003 heat wave in France triggered a debate about French social priorities and health care systems, causing the president and prime minister of France to blame, among other things, the 35-hour work week, the structure of the French health care system, and French families leaving behind the elderly on vacations.

And what kind of changes have come about? Well, New York City and other cities responded aggressively with first-responders and cooling centers this week. As for Paris, well, there's always the plage.

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Comments

Nice alarmist graphic.


Posted by: Daniele on 7 Aug 06

Before you get too carried away .. the sourthern hemisphere .. the other half of the world ... is having record cold spells...

Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

It snowed in Johannisberg last week.


It's just weather folks, just weather!


Posted by: Robert on 7 Aug 06

"Nice alarmist graphic."

It looks kind of like the Japanese flag used in WWII.

As for being alarmist, well, thousands of people died in the past few years. I think it's not an exaggeration to show that the sun & heat can kill.


Posted by: Michael G. Richard on 7 Aug 06

global climate change is often a better more inclusive way of describing the phenomenon. often it's the heat that people point to when there's so many other related repercussions that we need to think of the whole planetary weather system as changing. so cold in the south, hot in the north....it's all part of the same unfolding story....we can either keep denying a certain reality, or get proactive and consider viable alternatives for how we are all emmeshed in this together.


Posted by: Sheri on 8 Aug 06

Robert, it seems a bit cavalier (at best) to say that it is "just weather folks", when the numbers of heat-related deaths that are occurring aren't exactly small. The Pew report makes it clear that a number of studies all link higher mortality to increased severity of heat waves. Also, the number of deaths from heat waves already exceed all other meteorological events combined (hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and floods), and I'll bet it's up over non-weather related deaths in places, such as gun murders and auto accidents (certainly a dubious accomplishment anywhere in the U.S.).

Sheri, as for the more inclusive and somewhat more accurate phrase 'global climate change', I think you're right, but I have somewhat mixed feelings. On one hand, I definitely agree that global warming will unfold in a complex, geographically-specific manner. On the other hand, I've actually been in meetings with New York City bureaucrats that first insist on calling it 'climate change' for scientific correctness, who then go on to deny the predicted consequences of warmer temperatures or the increased frequency of extreme weather events (which will happen regardless of their choice of phrase). For most of the earth it is likely to be warming rather than cooling. Generally, I would prefer a less politicized, happy and truthful medium between correctness and inclusiveness on one hand, and speciousness and fatuousness on the other.


Posted by: David Hsu on 8 Aug 06



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