My beloved wife leaned over to me and said, "Do you know that in Canada dozens of people have died due to the heat? Near Vancouver?" “Hmm,” I replied absently. And then I woke up, suddenly realizing her words. "Wait, what ?!" Canada is not a place associated with "people who died of the heat." Yet it is the grim truth about what awaits us all.
Much of the Pacific Northwest is trapped under what climatologists call a "thermal dome." It stretches up and down the coast. The temperature goes off scale. It was 46 degrees Celsius in Portland, Oregon. It'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 is squeezed under a "thermal dome," which is a huge area of high pressure, which creates an effect that literally resembles a pressure cooker.
Yesterday's "heatwaves" - several days of higher than usual temperatures - are giving way to "thermal domes" - something much more catastrophic as the planet heats up beyond recognition, in a direction deeply hostile to us.
Why do I say dangerous? Well, what is life like in extreme heat?
The day before, I read an article about the hottest place on Earth, which is Jacobabad in Pakistan. It claims this title because the average temperature is over 52ºC. Remember that the thermal dome in the Pacific Northwest has already pushed the temperature there very close to this mark - 46 degrees Celsius. Portland and Seattle have reached temperatures approaching that of the hottest city on Earth.
This is "climate change" and we do not know its causes, but in fact we are starting to cook alive.
If you think this is an exaggeration, think about life in Jacobabad. In such heat, people practically do not leave the house. They stay inside, trying to keep as cool as they can. Business, commerce, trade, social events - they all freeze.
What does it look like? This is very similar to isolation. If you want to understand what the world will look like in a few years or decades, then the last year, as grim as it is, is a very good reference point.
Extreme heat is very similar to a pandemic, because both of these disasters put us on the brink of survival.
Jacobabad is toasted for months. The thermal dome of Portland, Vancouver and Seattle will come to naught. But this distinction is not much of a difference. Because there is a chance that the thermal dome will return next year, and even longer. And next year too. This is what life is like on a planet that is rapidly heating up.
What happens if it gets even hotter in Jacobabad? What will happen if heat domes appear more and more frequently in the Pacific Northwest?
To do this, you need to understand the concept of "wet bulb temperature". It takes into account the heat stress for living things. When you cover the thermometer with a damp cloth, you record the temperature at which sweat cools the body by evaporation. This is how climate scientist Simon Lewis says it. "A person cannot survive with prolonged exposure to a wet bulb temperature above 35ºC, because we have no way to cool the body. Even in the shade, and even with the help of an unlimited amount of water."
Did you understand? At temperatures above 35ºC, at 100% humidity, you will die. Quickly. Bach. You cannot cool yourself. Your organs fail and you are literally welded from the inside out.
This wet bulb temperature has been reached in only a few places, within a few hours - so far.But now we are experiencing a sharp, large-scale warming of the planet.. It is enough to think about how hot the summer has become, wherever you are, to literally feel how much our planet is warming up. We will cross this line. No one can say exactly when. But what we can say is that we are moving towards it at the speed of light, faster than anyone thinks. Will Portland and Vancouver be as hot as the hottest places on Earth?
When we step over the wet bulb threshold of about 35ºC, the places will become simply uninhabitable. Lewis says: "Something truly terrifying is happening: making the environment unsuitable for life because of the heat."
What happens when we cross this line? Well, you might be thinking: I'll just turn on the air conditioner harder! Wrong. Air conditioners need low humidity to function properly, and the more humid the conditions become, the harder they have to work. Meanwhile, the more intensively they work, the more the power system, stressed and unable to cope with it, will regularly fail - just as it happens in Jacobabad or in Portland and Vancouver.
We do not have the technology that will allow us to live comfortably on a boiling planet. I know you may be thinking this is because, like me, you are accustomed to the luxury of air-conditioned bliss. The truth is that the technology only works in a very narrow range of environmental conditions, perhaps 10 to 37 degrees Celsius, with relatively low humidity. We won't be able to condition the air so as not to be cooked alive.
Instead, entire regions of the planet will simply become, as Lewis says, uninhabitable. Certain locations will suffer from conventional thermal domes. Some, like Jacobabad, will simply be too hot all year round. And some will have drier heat that will spark mega-fires over and over again. There are many ways - too many - of getting to “uninhabitable”.
And there will be many more places like this than we think. All those air-conditioned glass towers in Miami? Good luck with that when the planet gets warmer. All those gorgeous skyscrapers of steel and glass in Manhattan? Have fun with a power grid that needs more power than the entire East Coast can supply.
What happens when a place becomes uninhabitable? There is massive destruction. People are already fleeing from Jacobabad. As human capital flight occurs, disruption occurs at three levels. The place from which people flee is getting poorer and more unstable. The place where they run usually doesn't want to see them, especially if they came with nothing.
And they will come with nothing, all these climate refugees and migrants, because most of us, if we're lucky, have only one real asset - our homes. But if you are forced to leave because it has become too hot to live in … no one will buy your home. It costs nothing. Congratulations, you are now something of a military refugee - run with clothes on your back and money you can take with you.
When a society is faced with these kinds of obstacles, it is prone to destabilization. Let's talk a little about another consequence of extreme heat and warming - the mega-drought facing the American West. Nowadays most of us pretend that this is not so important. This is because there are still scarce resources left to use. But as soon as what's left of the water disappears, it disappears.
Forever and ever. How will cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles survive? The classical scheme is as follows: first, drought and hunger suffer the rural hinterland, and then it penetrates inward, into the richer and more developed urban centers. Right now, the mega-drought in the West is being felt in California's once lush farming valleys.But when it spreads east and west like a cancerous tumor, how will it surely happen, what then?
And then … bang. Catastrophe. There is another category of refugees that you may have never thought about. Not people running from extreme heat, but people running for fresh water. What do we generally call these new categories of migrants and refugees? We don't even have names for them - and yet these changes are already taking place. And that's the whole point.
We live on a dying planet. It is not dying in the final and final sense - probably, at any rate, not, although there is still some chance that we will end a cycle of sharp warming, so strong that we will find ourselves like on Venus. We are living on a dying planet in the sense that it is heating up incredibly fast, faster than in hundreds of millions of years, possibly faster than ever.
And as the planet continues to heat up faster and faster, living things will die. Many-many. Trillions and trillions. Trees, insects, animals, fish. Rivers, oceans, sky, if we consider them also living beings. And we.
What will definitely not survive is this way of life. We cannot use the technology we have now to combat the existential threats that are already on our doorstep. You can't get out of a boiling planet with an air conditioner. We also cannot use to combat them the cultural mores, values, norms and institutions that we have now - materialism, greed, selfishness, carelessness, indifference, and so on.
What is left for us? You probably already guessed my answer. This is not a heatwave - this is a dying planet.
Our civilization is starting to collapse. When Portland and Seattle are almost as hot as Jacobabad - the hottest place on Earth - which itself becomes so that it will soon become literally unsustainable … then, my friends, we are a civilization that literally boiled itself alive.
In the fire and smoke of our own dependence on exploitation, things, toys, hatred, rage, all the ways we try to escape our own demons of loneliness, despair, ignorance and powerlessness.
We live on a dying planet. The question is who will survive?
Author: Umar Hake, Writer
Education: Oxford University, McGill University, London Business School