As world heat records fall, on land and sea, best-selling author Jeff Goodell on his book: “The Heat Will Kill You First”. Greenland is hot and extra rainy, dumping more water into the sea. Glaciologist Jason Box reports. But Greenland was partly ice-free just 400,000 years ago – what a new study warns us about today. Lead author Andrew Christ is our guest.
The program begins with blunt words from Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
“Humanity is in the hot seat. Today, the Word Meteorological organization and the European Commission’s Copernicus Climate Change Service are releasing official data that confirms that July 2023 is set to be the hottest months ever recorded in human history. We don’t have to wait for the end of the month to know this. Short of a mini ice age, over the next days, July 2023 will shatter records across the boards.
According to the data released today, July has already seen the hottest three-week period ever recorded, the three hottest days on record, and the highest ever ocean temperatures for this time of year. The consequences are clear and they are tragic, children swept away by monsoon rains, families running from the flames, workers collapsing in scorching heat. For vast parts of North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe, it’s a cruel summer. For the entire planet, it is a disaster. And for scientists, it is unequivocal, humans are to blame.
All this is entirely consistent with predictions and repeated warnings. The only surprise is the speed of the change. Climate change is here, it is terrifying, and it is just the beginning. The era of global warming has ended. The era of global boiling has arrived. The air is unbreathable, the heat is unbearable, and the level of fossil fuel profits, and climate inaction is unacceptable. Leaders must lead. No more hesitancy, no more excuses, no more waiting for the others to move first. There is simply no more time for that.”
– U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaking at the United Nations July 27, 20023.
U.S. President Joe Biden also called a rare press event about the amazing heat blasting the U.S. South and now East. Are leaders finally feeling the heat?
The world record hottest ocean temperature was just measured off Florida. The Mediterranean just set a new heat record. A rural area of China set a blistering new heat record – ever in that country – with 52.2 degrees Celsius, 126 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. Billions of people are suffering through long-lasting heat waves all around the Northern Hemisphere. Something strange is happening. Nobody saw this coming.
This week we have two new guest interviews and a fast report on weird weather in Greenland as the planet heats.
THE HEAT WILL KILL YOU FIRST
Just as billions of people suffer through the world’s first record round-the-planet heat wave, American writer Jeff Goodell strikes with his new book. It’s called “The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet”. Jeff’s book is already on the New York Times bestseller list. We last talked with Goodell after his 2017 book “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World” That was a New York Times Critics Top Book of 2017. Often published in Rolling Stone magazine, Jeff is a journalist’s journalist.
KEY HEAT FACTS IN THE OPENING OF JEFF GOODELL’S BOOK:
Number of people who live in extreme heat today (above 85 degrees mean annual temperature)
Number of people who are likely to live in extreme heat in 2070
Annual worldwide deaths from firearms
Annual worldwide deaths from extreme heat
I have a small doubt about the definition of heat Jeff uses in the book – as vibrations in molecules. We know metals conduct heat, but technically a piece of iron contains no molecules. I thought heat was an atomic vibration change. We also learn from Penn State researchers (2016) that electron transfer can transfer heat a million times faster than by vibration. So there is a second mechanism of heat beyond vibration alone. It’s a minor detail, but it shows how hard it is to figure out what “heat” actually is!
In the 2004 killer heat wave in Europe, about 70,000 people died. I was shocked to see a new report finds about 62,000 deaths in the EU from heat just last year, 2022. Jeff says we know how many people are killed by heat around the world. It is likely millions every year now, if the proper analysis were done. One of our guests suggested all death certificates need to add one more line of data: the temperature at time of death. That way we could pick up “excess deaths” which are really caused by heat.
I find judging heat by the number of human deaths is misleading. Many governments adapt with cooling centers and all that – so heat deaths might go down even as the temperatures go up. India reduced heat deaths with public education, cooling centers and various adaptive moves. That all works until the grid goes down. That’s when we could see a mass casualty event (again, Europe 2003, Russia 2010) in developed countries.
In his new book “The Heat Will Kill You First” Goodell writes:
“If the black-out continues for more than thirty-six hours or so, it’s likely the National Guard will need to be called in to maintain order and control widespread looting and general mayhem.”
CASE STUDY PHOENIX
Take Phoenix as a case study. The city just had a month where every day was at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, 43 degrees C. Night-time heat did not go below 90 degrees, 32 C and in fact Phoenix set a new record night-time low for the United States, cooling to only 97 degrees F., 36C. That’s punishing and extra dangerous because statistically, more people get go to hospitals or die with heat-caused illness when they can’t cool down their core body temperature at night. There is no escape from the heat.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns:
“In general, since records began in 1895, summer overnight low temperatures are warming at a rate nearly twice as fast as afternoon high temperatures for the US and the 10 warmest summer minimum temperatures have all occurred since 2002.”
I love this description of heat in Phoenix from Jeff’s book:
“On a scorching day in downtown Phoenix, when the temperature soars to 115 degrees or more, the sunshine assaults you, pushing you to seek cover. The air feels solid, a hazy, ozone-soaked curtain of heat. You feel it radiating up from the parking lot through your shoes. Metal bus stops on Van Buren Street become convection ovens. Flights are delayed at Sky Harbor International Airport because the planes can’t get enough lift in the thin, hot air.
At City Hall, where the entrance to the building is emblazoned with a giant metallic emblem of the sun, workers eat lunch in the lobby rather than venture outside to nearby restaurants. On the outskirts of the city, power lines sag and buzz, overloaded with electrons as the demand for air-conditioning soars and the entire grid is pushed to the max. In an Arizona heat wave, electricity is not a convenience. It is a tool for survival.”
The old expression was “hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk”. It takes about 160 degrees Fahrenheit to start eggs cooking. But this month, Phoenix pavement got hotter than that. It even fried some people who came into the Emergency Rooms with pavement burns.
NEW: 85 people in Arizona suffered severe burns from contact with pavements heated up to 180F (82C). 7 of them died. In total, 257 people had underlying cause of death listed as "exposure to excessive natural heat".
This is not a forecast for 50 years time, it’s happening today. pic.twitter.com/A3lmWXyj2o
— John Burn-Murdoch (@jburnmurdoch) July 21, 2023
Lots of American listeners are thinking “Well I don’t live in Phoenix”. That’s what I thought until heat reached almost 50 degrees C, 122 Fahrenheit right here in British Columbia Canada. As we heat the planet, a lot of American cities could get like Phoenix, with more across the Mediterranean and even China.
Despite becoming water-threatened and heat battered, more people are moving to Phoenix. How is that possible and when does that end?
IRAN SHUTS DOWN DUE TO EXTREME HEAT
Iran just announced a two day public holiday (all workers supposed to stay home) due to extreme heat there. Reuters reports: “ State media reported temperatures had this week exceeded 123 degrees Fahrenheit (51 Celsius) in the southern city of Ahvaz… Temperatures are expected to be 39 C in Tehran on Wednesday.”
BAD CITY DESIGN AND INJUSTICE
It seems like the first wave of heat deaths are really a social problem. Rich people turn up the AC. Over a billion humans don’t have AC or can’t afford the electric bill. Jeff talks to us about heat and social injustice, which he calls “temperature apartheid”.
From the book “The Heat Will Kill You First”: ALL IN THE SAME HEAT STORM, BUT NOT IN THE SAME BOATS…
“If you’re poor, on the other hand, you swelter in an uninsulated apartment or trailer with no air-conditioning or an old, inefficient machine that you can’t afford to run. You can’t move somewhere cooler because you’re afraid of losing your job and you don’t have the savings to start over. ‘We’re all in the storm, but we’re not in the same boat,’ Heather McTeer Toney, the former mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, said during testimony before the US Congress. ‘Some of us are sitting on aircraft carriers while others are just bobbing along on a floatie.’”
You can listen to or download my 18 minute interview with Heather McTeer Toney (2020) here.
As part of his research, Jeff went to Chennai, India’s sixth most populous city. Until 1996, it was called Madras, located in the Tropics on India’s East Coast. Colonial Madras handled the heat with ingenious planning. Homes had airways in between, and were oriented to draw cooler air from the ocean. They had a lot of plants and shade build in. But now with AC they build the usual office towers and suburbs with no trees or cooling.
Vancouver just built a zillion apartments and condos in downtown towers. The walls are made of floor-to-ceiling glass. Due to safety regulations, windows can only open four inches. It’s about as heat-unfriendly as you can image. The invention of the air-conditioner made us forget how to design heat-ready cities. We may have to relearn those lessons the hard way. For more on how poor design adds to city heat, check out my interviews with Lei Zhao (why cities could be 4 degrees hotter than surroundings) and the insightful Greek scientist Dr. Mat Santamouris.
This Future Doesn’t Work
Posted on March 17, 2021
Extreme Floods, City Heat & Politics
Posted on February 1, 2018
TRACKING HEAT TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH
Goodell literally went to the end of the Earth to witness this planet heating up. He went on a ship expedition with scientists to the massive Thawites Glacier. Jeff was among the first to see the Thwaites glacial cliffs from the sea. He put out this experience in an audio book on audible.com. It’s called “The Big Melt – A Journey to Antarctica’s Doomsday Glacier”
I was surprised to learn due to the strange geography of Antarctica, is it possible the glaciers of West Antarctica will slide backward into a two mile deep depression in the land underneath instead of outward into the sea. That would still add to sea level rise though. I’m just trying to learn how this works.
ARE THERE BRAKES ON HEATING? HOW HOT CAN IT GET?
In “The Heat Will Kill You First” Jeff asks a question weighing heavy in my own mind: “with today’s level of warming, are there any brakes on the atmospheric system that prevent a heat wave beyond any we’ve experienced or imagined?” From our interview the answer is probably “yes” and “no”. The physics on this planet, particularly the lag time of the ocean, likely precludes anything crazy in the near future. Planetary highs are currently in the mid to low-50’s C, around 126 Fahrenheit. We will hit those highs more often (just happened in China) – but not likely sail to 60 or 70 C (140 or 150 F) this century. There are brakes on the system, so far.
According to scientists and medical doctors, the key figure is not just the air-temperature high, but the combination of heat and humidity. Recent science suggest humans can start dying around 95 degrees or even 91 degrees C (35 or 31 C) – if the humidity is high enough.
INSIDE THE OVER-HEATED BODY
This book is like a cross between a novel and an operating manual. We hear stories and necessary facts woven together. In parts, it is like an introduction to our heat history and future.
Jeff’s book is also stuffed with useful public health info, things you need to know personally about recognizing when you are in danger. It’s easy to miss the signs, become confused, and die from heat exposure – even if you are younger and in good health, equipped with water. This just happened to several experienced hikers in the U.S. Southwest. Even Goodell realized he was in heat danger a couple of times. He emphasizes: you may not realize you are in danger, even close to heat death.
From “The Heat Will Kill You First”:
“At a body temperature of 105 to 106 degrees, your limbs are convulsed by seizures. At 107 and above, your cells themselves literally begin to break down or “denature.” Cell membranes – the thin lipid walls that protect the inner workings of your cells – literally melt. Inside your cells, the proteins essential to life— the ones that extract energy from food or sunlight, fend off invaders, destroy waste products, and so on— often have beautifully precise shapes.
The proteins start as long strands, then fold into helixes, hairpins, and other configurations, as dictated by the sequence of their components. These shapes define the function of proteins. But as the heat rises, the proteins unfold and the bonds that keep the structures together break: first the weaker ones, and then, as the temperature mounts, the stronger ones. At the most fundamental level, your body unravels.”
See also this article by Rebecca Leber, senior reporter covering climate change for Vox:
The invisible consequences of heat on the body and mind
[Vox July 21, 2023]
In science-fiction, a cyborg combines organic intelligence with machinery. Considering a large portion of humanity can only survive record new heat with air conditioning, we are becoming cyborgs to live in a climate-changed world. As Jeff discusses, there are a lot of social ramifications to this machine-dependent civilization. Those left out are at risk of illness or death. They are mainly the poorest, and often racially different.
According to Wikipedia:
“A cyborg is essentially a man-machine system in which the control mechanisms of the human portion are modified externally by drugs or regulatory devices so that the being can live in an environment different from the normal one.”
Doesn’t that sound familiar, in a heat-stressed A.C. world?
But even for the lucky cooled ones, we become dependent on the power grid. In many countries, that grid is run by private corporations, possibly controlled by banks and billionaires opposed to climate action and invested in the current deadly status quo. You need to be part of the system, have a job of money, to stay alive. Is it developing into heat enslavement? Will authoritarian governments just cut of the electricity for people or groups who oppose them, using heat as a weapon of social control? Obviously, warring governments or terrorists will start by destroying the grid, as Russia did in Ukraine. Historians used to talk about freezing the enemy. Now we just let them suffer and die in the heat.
In the book Jeff writes:
“In China, it was rare to feel mechanically chilled air twenty years ago. Now more than 75 percent of homes in Beijing and Shanghai have some form of air-conditioning. Over the last decade, 10 percent of the skyrocketing electricity growth in China has been due to cooling. In a country that is still largely dependent on coal for power, this is a climate disaster.”
After our interview Jeff thanks me for such informed questions. I guess he was referring to this Tweet about his experiences:
“After 100+ interviews around the world since the pub of my new book I’ve learned that regional and local journalists in the US (print and TV) are widely misinformed & uneducated about climate. It’s stunning. And it makes the mission of @CoveringClimate all the more urgent.”
Find out more at https://jeffgoodellwriter.com/
PREVIOUS ECOSHOCK APPEARANCES
The Jeff Goodell Radio Ecoshock interview on his book “The Water Will Rise” can be downloaded in either CD Quality (57 MB) or Lo-Fi in this 2017 show. Jeff is the first interview.
Then hear Jeff Goodell in my rebroadcast of the November 2021 podcast “Is Heat the Greatest Climate Threat” .
CHECK OUT MY OWN BOOK OF GREAT HEAT INTERVIEWS
“Surviving in the Age of Extreme Heat”. I charge just $7 for this e-book to cover the costs of transcription from audio and electronic book layout (with lots of live links!). You can order that here.
But Jeff Goodell’s new book is the best work on heat I’ve ever read. His book is necessary reading for us all now. I would love to see a Second Edition of “The Heat Will Kill You First” perhaps expanded with more data and stories from Europe and China. It’s a global thing and the book should be translated to many languages.
GREENLAND CAN BE ICE-FREE…
There is so much under-reported news from Greenland – changes that will affect the whole planet – that I devote the rest of the show to Greenland updates, first from Andrew Christ and then Jason Box.
It appears there are at least three “Astounding Under-reported News from Greenland” items:
1. an extreme rainfall event just happened there in early summer, just like the heavy flooding rains that struck New England, Northern India, and the Chinese wheat crop in recent months. Jason Box explains.
2. we just learned part of Greenland was ice-free just 400,000 years ago, with guest Andrew Christ.
3. a team of scientists say changes to Arctic snow cover plus Arctic Amplification have created new weather patterns that enabled multiple (four) heat domes across the Northern Hemisphere this June and July 2023. Large waves are stalling, creating a blocking pattern, which drives heat back down to the surface for days and weeks at a time. (That needs to be covered in a coming program).
Part of Greenland was ice-free not long ago, and could go there again, raising sea level around the world. In March 2021, our guest from the University of Vermont Dr. Andrew Christ explained a long-neglected Greenland ice core revealed the land surface was exposed to the Sun sometime in the last 1 million years.
Dr. Andrew Christ, University of Vermont (taken on Greenland)
Now the team is back with a worrying update. Part of Greenland emerged from the ice pretty recently, just 400,000 years ago. Earth was only a few tenths of a degree warmer than today. Sea levels were way higher. That looks like our new future, maybe sooner than you think.
Scientists call the period around 400,000 years ago “Marine Isotope Stage 11”. We need a name that is easier and more sexy. That was when at least part of Greenland was ice-free, where plants grew and animals roamed. Just for reference, There were no Homo-Sapiens Sapiens like us 400,000 years ago. The first Neanderthals were moving into Europe during that warm period. Marine Isotope State 11 (MIS11) was only 1.5 degrees C. warmer than pre-industrial times. We are about 1.2 to 1.3 degrees warmer than industrial already. I’ve seen predictions 2023 is proving so hot the global mean average temperature may reach 1.5 degrees this year. That may not be permanent, yet.
Christ et al. write:
“If moderate warmth for 29 [thousand years] during MIS 11 resulted in significant ice loss from Greenland, then rapid, prolonged, and considerate anthropogenic Arctic warming will likely cause melting of the [Greenland Ice Sheet], raise sea level, and trigger additional climate feedbacks in the coming centuries.”
By the way, when those Greenland glaciers melted away, the melting caused at least five feet (1.5 meters) of sea level rise – and maybe as much as 20 feet (6 meters). There are a host of other impacts if and when more of Greenland surfaces to the daylight. The missing ice will reflect less solar energy back into space. It could also change ocean currents and even the mass balance of the planet.
Our guest Dr. Andrew Christ is Gund Postdoctoral Fellow & Lecturer at the University of Vermont in Burlington. His latest paper, with UVM Lab Director Paul Bierman and 17 other authors, is titled “Deglaciation of northwestern Greenland during Marine Isotope Stage 11”. That is in the journal Science published July 20, 2023.
Check out Drew Christ’s web site here.
By the way, there are five radio stations in Greenland. It appears 3 are in the Greenlandic language and 2 in Danish.
PREVIOUS RADIO ECOSHOCK INTERVIEW WITH ANDREW CHRIST
You can listen to our 2021 discussion on disappearing ice in Greenland either on YouTube or in this Ecoshock show (audio).
Greenland Ice Going Gone – Andrew Christ with Alex Smith on Radio Ecoshock
Greenland Ice Going Gone Posted on March 24, 2021
JASON BOX REPORTS FROM GREENLAND:
WEIRD WITH WARMING
Nobody reports from Greenland – except Denmark-based but American glaciologist Jason Box. You hear a few minutes from his YouTube update post July 23rd, 2023.
Among other things, Greenland has experienced extreme rainfall events this year, including being hit by an atmospheric river. In the video, we see one of Jason’s colleagues crawling across the snow. There has been so much snow and heat the surface is too soft and mushy to stand on. As you might imagine, large amounts of water are falling down to the base of the glaciers, speeding their movement toward the ocean. And masses of meltwaters are flowing into the North Atlantic. These may be responsible for the only real cooling spot on the planet, the cold “blob” hovering below Greenland. As we have heard, increasing meltwaters may also change the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC).
Frankly, the report from Jason Box is scary. He is a leader in establishing monitoring stations on the Greenland glacier, starting in the late 1990’s. It’s quite a story how they managed to maintain them for up to 27 years, getting a constant flow of reliable data about the glacier and the weather reaching it. I can’t think of anyone more on-the-ground authoritative than Dr. Jason Box. And he’s clearly worried, maybe close to freaked out, but what scientists are seeing there. This need a LOT more mass media attention.
Find Jason Box on Facebook here.
Or watch his YouTube post here:
“record setting July 2023 Greenland heatwave alert”
As Antonio Guterres said at the start, we are totally out of time. Please listen next week for that new science on the Atlantic current (AMOC) and when it might collapse, sending the UK and Northern Europe into the cold house, even as the rest of the planet warms. Strange days.
I’m Alex Smith. Thanks for listening, and caring about our world.