Our Civilisation is Boiling Alive in the Fumes of its Own Waste
It was my lovely doctor wife who leaned over to me and said: “Did you know scores of people in Canada are dead because of the heat? Near Vancouver?” Suffering a severe case of brain fog thanks to being in a pandemic for a year and counting now, I was tuned out. “Hmm,” I replied, absently. And then I woke up, suddenly hearing the words. “Wait, what?”
Canada’s not exactly a place you associate with “people dead from the heat.” And yet it’s a grim tale of what’s to come.
This isn’t a heatwave. It’s a dying planet.
Much of the Pacific Northwest is trapped under what climate scientists are calling a “heat dome.” It stretches up and down the coast. Temperatures have rocketed off the charts. It was 115 degrees in Portland, Oregon. That’s hotter than Cairo, Egypt, or Karachi, Pakistan.
This is a region of the world that should be temperate and cool — not boiling hot. But it’s trapped under a “heat dome,” which is a huge region of high pressure, that creates an effect literally akin to a pressure cooker. Yesterday’s “heat waves” — a few days of higher than normal temperatures are giving way to “heat domes” — something much more catastrophic, as the planet warms beyond all recognition, in ways profound hostile to us.
Why do I say “dangerous”? Well, what is life under extreme heat like?
The day before, I’d read an article about the hottest place on earth, which is Jacobabad, in Pakistan. It claims that title because average temperatures go beyond 52ºC. Remember, the heat dome in the Pacific Northwest has already pushed temperatures there almost within striking distance of that — the 115 Fahrenheit is 46 degrees Celsius. Portland and Seattle reached temperatures that are approaching the hottest city on earth.
That’s “climate change,” or far more accurately put, global warming. We are beginning to be boiled alive.
If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider life in Jacobabad. People don’t leave the house much when it’s that hot. They stay inside, trying to stay cool however they can. Business, commerce, trade, social events — all these things come to a halt. What does that sound like to you? It sounds a lot like lockdown. If you want to understand what the world will look like a few years or decades hence, the last year is — grimly — a very good guide. Extreme heat is a lot like pandemic lockdown, because these are both catastrophes that are on the verge of being unsurvivable.
Jacobabad broils for months. Portland and Vancouver and Seattle’s heat dome will go away. But that’s a distinction without much of a difference. Because chances are the heat dome will be back next year, for longer. And so too the year after that. This is what living on a planet that’s heating rapidly is.
What happens when Jacobabad gets even hotter? What happens as the Pacific Northwest experiences heat domes for longer, more frequently?
For that, you need to understand the notion of “wet bulb temperature.” It accounts for heat stress to living things. When you cover a thermometer with a wet cloth, you record the temperature at which sweat cools the body with evaporation. Here’s how climate scientist Simon Lewis puts it. “Humans cannot survive prolonged exposure to a wet-bulb temperature beyond 35ºC because there is no way to cool our bodies. Not even in the shade, and not even with unlimited water.
Did you get that? Beyond 95 degrees Fahrenheit — which is what 35ºC is — at 100% humidity, you’re dead. Fast. Bang. You can’t cool yourself. You go into organ failure, and literally boil alive from the inside, as your proteins denature (you can think my doctor wife for that lovely description.)
Now, that wet bulb temperature has only been reached in a few places, for a few hours — so far. But we are now experiencing dramatic, massive warming as a globe. Warming which only, frankly, extremists and idiots can go on denying. You only have to think about how much hotter summer’s gotten wherever you are to literally feel how much our planet’s heating. We’re going to cross that line. Nobody can say for sure when. But what we can say is that we’re heading towards it at light speed, faster than anyone thinks. Portland and Vancouver being as hot as the hottest places on earth?
As we cross the wet-bulb threshold of about 35ºC, places simply become unlivable. Lewis says “something truly terrifying is emerging: the creation of unliveable heat.”
What happens as we cross that line? Well, you might think: I’ll just run my AC harder! Bzzt, wrong. ACs need lower humidity to work well, and the more humid conditions get, the harder they need to work. Meanwhile, the harder you work your AC, the more the power grid, stressed by demand, unable to cope, will crash regularly — just as it does in Jacobabad, or it did in Portland and Vancouver.
We don’t have a technology that’s going to allow us to live comfortably on a boiling planet. I know that you might think we do, because, like me, you’re used to the luxury of air conditioned bliss. The truth is that technology only works in a profoundly narrow range of environmental conditions, maybe from 50 to 100 Fahrenheit, with relatively low humidity. We aren’t going to be able to air-condition our way out of being boiled alive.
Instead, entire regions of the planet will simply become, as Lewis says, unlivable. Some place will suffer regular heat domes. Some, like Jacobabad, will just be too hot, period, year round. And some will have a drier heat that produces megafires, over and over again. There a lot of ways — too many — that you get to “unlivable.”
Those places are also going to be a lot more numerous than we think. All those air conditioned glass towers in Miami? Good luck with that as the planet warms. All those steel and glass luxury skyscrapers in Manhattan? Have fun with a power grid that needs more juice than the entire East Coast can supply.
What happens as a place becomes unlivable? Massive levels of disruption do. People have already fled Jacobabad. As “human capital flight” ensues, disruptions happens on three levels. The place people are fleeing from gets poorer and more unstable. The place they’re fleeing to usually doesn’t want them there, especially if they’re coming with nothing.
And they will be coming with nothing, all these climate refugees and migrants, because, well, most of us have just one real asset, if we’re lucky, and that’s our homes. But if you have to leave a place because it’s gotten too hot to live there…nobody’s buying your home. It’s worthless. Congratulations, now you’re something like a war refugee — fleeing with the clothes on your back, and the money you can take with you.
As societies face these kinds of obstacles, they tend to destabilize. Let’s talk about another effect of extreme heat and warming for a moment — the megadrought the American West faces. Right about now, most of us are pretending that it isn’t a big deal. That’s because there are still a few meagre resources left to tap. But once what’s left of the water’s gone, it’s gone. For good. How are cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles going to survive? The classic pattern goes like this: the rural hinterlands suffer the effects of drought and famine first, and then it creeps inwards, towards richer, more developed urban centres. Right about now, the West’s mega drought is felt in California’s once-lush farming valleys. But as it spreads east and west, like a cancer, as it’s sure to do — what then?
Then…bang. Catastrophe. There’s another whole category of refugees you might never have considered. Not people fleeing from extreme heat, but people fleeing for fresh water. What do we even call these new categories of migrants and refugees? We don’t even have names for them — and yet these changes are already upon us. And that’s the point.
We are now living on a dying planet. It’s not dying in an ultimate and final sense — probably not, anyways, although there’s still some chance we end up with a cycle of runaway warming so severe we end up like Venus. We’re living on a dying planet in the sense that it’s heating up incredibly fast, faster than it has for hundreds of millions of years, quite possibly the fastest it’s ever heated up.
And as the planet continues warming, faster and faster, living things are going to die. Lots of lots of them. Trillions upon trillions of them. Trees, insects, animals, fish. Rivers, oceans, skies, if you think of those as living things, too. And us.
What’s certain not to survive is this way of life. We can’t use the technologies we have now to fight the Existential Threats already on our doorstep. You can’t air condition way out of a boiling planet. We can’t use the cultural mores, values, norms, and institutions we have now to fight them, either — materialism, greed, selfishness, carelessness, indifference, and so on.
Where does that leave us? You probably already suspect my answer. This isn’t a heatwave — it’s a dying planet. Our civilisation is now beginning to collapse. When Portland and Seattle are almost as hot as Jacobabad — the hottest place on earth — which itself is becoming so that that soon it will literally be unsurvivable…then, my friends, we are a civilisation that has literally cooked itself alive. In the combustion and fumes of its own addiction to exploitation, stuff, toys, hate, rage, all the ways we try to escape from our own demons of loneliness, despair, ignorance, and powerlessness.
We’re living on a dying planet. I guess the question then is: who gets to survive?
Original article: https://eand.co/this-isnt-a-heatwave-it-s-a-dying-planet-ac1c9eb529d1