Extreme Heat

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High temperatures in the United States, July 31, 2022. NASA.

Extreme heat killed Tule Lake in the northeast corner of Siskiyou County in northern California. “The story of Tule Lake is one of loss. Farmers in the area are idling croplands. Workers are moving out. This once wetland for millions of migrating birds is a lonelier area.”

The death of Tule Lake resurrects the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Bad agricultural practices triggered violent drought and dust storms. Those bad practices in agriculture, industry, transportation, forests, fishing, and war, have made the Dust Bowl permanent the world over. We are witnessing the spread of a monoculture of ecocide and death. Warming the entire planet has gigantic consequences. Extreme heat is simply the tip of a melting iceberg.

Mountains of carbon in the permafrost

Even the permafrost is thawing. A recent study warned of a colossal release of frozen carbon dioxide. The arctic permafrost is full of carbon dioxide:

“Arctic permafrost stores nearly 1,700 billion metric tons of frozen and thawing carbon. Anthropogenic warming threatens to release an unknown quantity of this carbon to the atmosphere… Abrupt thaw… could emit a substantial amount of carbon to the atmosphere rapidly (days to years), mobilizing the deep legacy carbon sequestered in [the Arctic] Yedoma. Carbon dioxide emissions are proportionally larger than other greenhouse gas emissions in the Arctic… Increasingly frequent wildfires in the Arctic will also lead to a notable but unpredictable carbon flux…”

Extreme heat is part of this slow but steady disintegration. It has been showing up in prominent ways – for decades.

Extreme heat in California

Extreme heat visited California in 2020, right when the pandemic was shutting down the state and the country. Reporters for the Los Angeles Times painted Southern California in colors of orange, glowing ember, and smoldering purple:

“For more than three weeks in 2020, back-to-back heat waves settled over the Southwest, claiming dozens of lives and leaving tens of millions of people sweltering in triple-digit temperatures. The days brought suffering and the nights offered little relief. On maps of the record heat, Southern California glowed like an ember, its normally temperate coast shaded orange, its inland cities and desert towns a deep, smoldering purple.”

The state of California, however, has ignored the dangers and deaths from intense heat. “Each year, extreme heat kills more Americans than any other climate-fueled hazard, including hurricanes, floods and wildfires, but it gets far less attention because it kills so quietly,” reported the Los Angeles Times in 2020.

Thinking about anything extreme is unpleasant. War, fires, tornadoes, floods, and other disasters are faces of extreme reality. Extreme heat is part of that reality. Human mind avoids such confrontations. But climate chaos is increasing those tragic confrontations.

I remember the days of extreme heat I lived through in the last several years. A wave of searing daily temperature of about 110 to 112 degrees Fahrenheit warned me to stay inside my air-conditioned home.

Air conditioners, however, are not the answer for fighting extreme heat. They are machines that break down. They rely on Earth-harming chemicals to cool the air. They are powered by electricity largely produced by fossil fuels. They have a “very real and harmful impact on the planet.”

Air conditioners or not, extreme heat is here to stay. It happened with intense ferocity in 2020 and 2021 and in early September 2022. It was difficult being outside. I rushed to the college library at eight in the morning. But returning home around one in the afternoon was a struggle. The very warm air and hot Sun engulfed me like hot water in the swimming pool, making breathing uncomfortable, nay dangerous. This climate warning lasted about two weeks.

“As is the case for many of California’s biggest climate challenges — think of wildfires and the drought — extreme heat is likely to become a permanent fixture of life, and communities are scrambling to adapt.”

But how can one adapt to danger verging on death? The temperatures of extreme heat next year and after are certain to be higher than 112 degrees Fahrenheit.

California can fight climate chaos with green farming and public transportation

Belatedly, Governor Newsom of California said, “California is taking aggressive action to combat the climate crisis and build resilience in our most vulnerable communities, including a comprehensive strategy to protect Californians from extreme heat. With lives and livelihoods on the line, we cannot afford to delay.”

But I don’t see anything “aggressive” in California in fighting climate chaos. Agribusiness as usual gulps down 80 percent of our scarce drinking water for producing crops for countless chicken, hogs, and cattle on the menu. Animal farms slaughter millions of these sick animals every year for Californians addicted to meat. These animal farms, and the rest of industrialized agriculture, however, are gigantic factories of greenhouse gases warming the planet and boosting extreme heat.

Another source of extreme heat is your beloved automobile, which Newsom ignores. Waves of large petroleum-powered cars clog our streets and poison our air as if we still lived in the 1960s. Why is Governor Newsom not acting against so obvious a threat and harm? He could order car manufacturers to immediately stop producing these dangerous machines. He can also order them to stop selling them in California.

Alternatives exist. Electric cars, small electric cars. We should not allow the development of large electric cars (sports utility vehicles). But, above all, Newsom needs to fund public transportation: buses, trams, crisscrossing towns and cities, and trains and bullet trains. In fact, if he wants to make a difference, spend his political capital in rebuilding public transportation – and make it free.

The only time I rode a bullet train was in my last visit to China in 2019. Why is the bullet train in China but not in California / America? Are the Chinese better with advanced technology or care more about the public good than Americans? Can Newsom answer this question?

The answer has nothing to do with technology. We have plenty of advanced technology. Yet we seem to have no concern or policy supporting the public good.

China acts more like a unified and civilized country than America. It cares about its people. Yes, China has been infected by the virus of making money, but not so much to allow the unchecked triumph of the individual and corporation to cannibalize the public good.

What is the meaning of extreme heat?

Extreme heat brings this evil to light. It is about the extreme reaction of climate to the extreme burning of fossil fuels. And in all these cases of extremeness the public good goes up in flames. That’s why President Joe Biden is fighting his private war against President Vladimir Putin of Russia in the Ukraine. The public good in America, which translates into fighting a maximum war against fossil fuels and their owners and supporters, has dissipated in his mind. It’s easier to continue the Trump policy of doling out public lands and waters to the despoilers of nature for the extraction of oil and natural gas. And, of course, spending billions for munitions to kill Russians and Ukrainians does not keep him up at night. In fact, some Republicans thank him for his war spirit.

Biden has yet to understand that the real enemies of America and democracy are domestic: the Republicans in the Senate and the House and their fossil fuel funders and brain trusts. These plutocrats deny climate change and strive to replace democracy with their own oligarchy and authoritarianism. They were behind Trump’s failed coup. And unless Biden and the Democratic Party confront and defeat them, alas for America. The extreme heat of climate will compete with the extreme tyrannical politics of the Republicans.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.