Heat Waves: Local and Global
When is it right to bring up climate change?
The answer to the subheading is all the time.
At a recent, monthly meeting for a climate group I volunteer in,1 we were told that we should up the number of Letters to the Editor we send.2 Looking through San Jose’s The Mercury News, I quickly found the piece I would write in to respond to: “‘It’s gonna cook’: Heat wave to smack Bay Area…”
It’s a short piece detailing the then-upcoming, now-ongoing heat wave frying the western US with triple-digit temperatures. It focuses on what kind of numbers we should have expected to see here in the Bay Area. I knew right away this article would be ripe for response because, despite being a feature piece on rising temperatures and increased heat, there is not one word of mention given to our century-long, global heat wave.
Because of the long-term, multi-faceted, hyper-objectness of climate change, it is near impossible to ever say a localized, specific weather event is its direct result. As David Wallace-Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth (all quote emphasis in this issue is mine):
But climate change is not a discrete clue we can find at the scene of a local crime—one hurricane, one heat wave, one famine, one war…
If hurricanes of a certain force are now five times as likely as in the pre-Columbian Caribbean, it is parsimonious to the point of triviality to argue over whether this one or that one was “climate-caused.” All hurricanes now unfold in the weather systems we have wrecked on their behalf, which is why there are more of them, and why they are stronger. The same is true for wildfires: this one or that one may be “caused” by a cookout or a downed power line, but each is burning faster, bigger, and longer because of global warming, which gives no reprieve to fire season. Climate change isn’t something happening here or there but everywhere, and all at once. And unless we choose to halt it, it will never stop.
It doesn’t matter that we can’t attribute a specific weather event directly to climate change; the influence of increasing temperatures on the intensity and frequency of heat events like droughts and heat waves is close to the level of a priori deduction. When we talk about these heat events, to leave out the context of our changed and changing climate, and what we are currently doing which is continuing these changes, is dangerous and irresponsible.
Now, I do not mean this article to be a tunnel-visioned slight against The Mercury News.3 In arguing for giving proper context, I would be a great hypocrite if I failed to point out that many of the articles put out by Mercury concerning the heat wave discuss the contributing effects of climate change. This article, released yesterday, includes a conclusion section which highlights the climate correlation, noting that climate change is making heat waves “hotter, more frequent, and longer.”
Another article, released today, is entirely dedicated to “what’s behind the heat wave,” exploring various ways that climate change is affecting Californian weather through increased heat, highlighting that “the U.S. West and the rest of the world can expect more extreme heat waves in the future unless officials move to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions…” Near its conclusion, the article morbidly references a recent study on heat deaths:
[The study] included about 200 U.S. cities and found more than 1,100 deaths a year from climate change-caused heat, representing about 35% of all heat deaths in the country…
It ends, quoting Kristie L. Ebi, a professor at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington, “Climate change is harming us now. It’s a future problem, but it’s also a current problem.”
These pieces, and others like it, do the due diligence I am advocating for. Their existence is an unambiguous good: more articles which highlight climate impacts in current weather (and which then prompt us to take action to limit further climate change) are absolutely necessary to make the connection in people’s minds that climate change is now; its harms and dangers are already upon us.
A counter-argument may be levied that news outlets which feature articles highlighting the climate connection should be in the clear if they so happen to also have articles which do not. “They have done their duty in responsible journalism; surely, they do not have to drone on and on about climate every time they talk about the weather.” To this expression of tire, I would first refer back to my article’s first sentence, and then reiterate that no, occasional mention is not enough. It must be each and every time. Not only because that is the honest thing to do (any weather event that comes about, even in part, as a product of climate change deserves to be labeled as such), but because the media has done such a horrendously poor job (as a whole)4 at covering climate change.
If I were to ask you what portion of the American public hears about global warming in the media, at the least, once a week, what would be your reply?
Here’s some space to think of your answer.
If it is anything higher than one quarter, you overestimate how strong media coverage of climate change is. One quarter of the public hears about it, at minimum, once a week in the media. It being the single greatest threat that humanity and the biotic world currently faces, and arguably the greatest such threat ever to exist.5
Such a violently important phenomena demands more6 attention and most certainly requires recognition each and everywhere it arises. That means every affected heat wave, drought, hurricane, monsoon, and weather event in which climate change plays a role (likely nearly all of them) necessitates the explicit inclusion of such a role in any and all news coverage.
Finally, to once more reiterate the practical need for such connections to be made, only 64% of Americans believe that climate change is currently affecting the weather, and only 43% think climate change will personally harm them. Morbidly, but necessarily, I am left to wonder into which camp fell those 1,100 souls who lost their lives to climate heat.
If you think the communication of this coverage critique is important, then consider:
And in the meantime, stay cool. The long summer has not yet begun.
Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which pushes for a price on carbon! Something that nearly every developed country has, that we don’t
Just in case anyone doesn’t know: a Letter to the Editor is a short message written to a newspaper or publication which normally responds to a published article. A few letters are generally published in each issue which respond to articles from previous issues. Since this was in a climate group, we were to look for articles to respond to which had to do with the environment, energy, and/or climate.
Even if the role of polemicist is more appealing to me than that of poet or prose-master
Important to note, considering some publications like Grist are dedicated to climate issues, and even certain mainstream publications like Mercury are much more likely to run climate pieces than more right-leaning publications that have been ideologically opposed to the concept of climate change for much of their existence.
I am ignoring previous mass extinction level events considering there was no humanity at the time of any of them. Timescales of millions of years for recovery are feasible for the biosphere as a whole, but not quite for human society. If we reached a point that the biosphere would need to recover for millions of years to regain a decent level of biodiversity, human existence would impede such a recovery and, at the same time, would undoubtedly be hell.
“more” is such a weak word; surrounding it in impassioned adjectives would only highlight its impotence