This story includes details on the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.
Heat exhaustion and visions of death after a short walk down the street on one 46°C day in Phoenix, Arizona, led American author Jeff Goodell down a three-year journey examining the dangers of extreme heat: its effect on our bodies, glaciers, sea levels, infrastructure, and more.
His conclusion: “Extreme heat is the engine of planetary chaos. We ignore it at our peril”—a finding Goodell was reminded of mid-June, when a heat dome settled over his current home in Austin, Texas, as well as other parts of the southwestern United States and Mexico.
“The extreme heat that is cooking many parts of the world this summer is not a freakish event—it is another step into our burning future,” writes Goodell, author of the forthcoming book The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, in an opinion piece for the New York Times.
Many of us underestimate heat’s dangers, tending to rely on past experiences of living with high temperatures before climate change pushed “high” to the extreme. Goodell recounts the danger he put himself in when he chose to “brave the heat” and walk to a meeting that sweltering day during a 2019 Arizona heat wave. He thought he “knew heat”, but he was wrong. “After walking three blocks, I felt dizzy,” he recalls. “After seven blocks, my heart was pounding. After 10 blocks, I thought I was a goner.”
After surviving that episode, he began researching his book on the perils of heat. “I talked to doctors about how when the core temperature of our bodies rises too high, the proteins in our cells begin to unravel,” Goodell writes. “I sailed to Antarctica to see how changes in ocean temperature accelerate the melting of glaciers…I talked to people in the slums of India and in oven-like apartments in Arizona and in stifling hot garrets in Paris.”
“I trapped mosquitoes in Houston and learned about how the spread of dengue fever and malaria is altered by hotter temperatures. I talked to engineers about how heat bends railroad tracks and weakens bridges.”
Goodell recalled those stories when the recent heat wave unfolded near home. “Events disturbingly similar to what I had reported on in other places several years earlier were playing out in real time around me, like hikers dying of heatstroke and thousands of dead fish washing up on Gulf Coast beaches (hotter water contains less oxygen, making it difficult for fish to breathe),” he writes.
“The red-faced desperation on the faces of homeless people living beneath an overpass near me was spookily evocative of the red-faced desperation I’d seen on the faces of people in India and Pakistan.”
He speculates that Texas arguably “did this to itself”, by pursuing profits from continued fossil fuel extraction, while also undermining important protections for those exposed to high temperatures and neglecting to equip prisons with air conditioning. And he notes that many Texans able to avoid the heat did so without a “sense that a life-threatening force has invaded [their] world.”
But Goodell sides with those pushing for a more hopeful narrative, in which we change how we perceive our connection to the natural world. In doing so, he insists people must remain “clear-eyed about the scope and scale of what we are facing,” as many of the disastrous events unfolding worldwide, from wildfires in Canada to melting ice in the Himalayas, are all driven by rising heat.