Sverage monthly temperature for July in Phoenix and Philadelphia, 1948-2018. The average monthly temperature for July is rising in both Phoenix and Philadelphia. Data: NOAA. Graphic: The Guardian

By Oliver Milman
14 August 2018

PHILADELPHIA (The Guardian) – On yet another day of roasting heat in Phoenix, elderly and homeless people scurry between shards of shade in search of respite at the Marcos De Niza Senior Center. Along with several dozen other institutions in the city, it has been set up as a cooling centre: a free public refuge, with air conditioning, chilled bottled water, boardgames and books. Last summer a record 155 people died in Phoenix from excess heat, and the city is straining to avoid a repeat.

James Sanders, an 83-year-old who goes by King, has lived in the city for 60 years and considers himself acclimatised to the baking south Arizona sun. “It does seem hotter than it used to be, though,” he says as he picks at his lunch, the temperature having climbed to 42C (107F) outside. “Maybe it’s my age. Maybe the wind isn’t blowing. It can’t get much hotter than this though. Can it?”

The heatwave that has recently swept the US has put 100 million Americans under heat warnings; caused power cuts in California where temperatures in places such as Palm Springs approached 50C (122F); and resulted in deaths from New York to the Mexican border, where people smugglers abandoned their clients in the desert. Further north, in Canada, more than 70 people perished in the Montreal area after a record burst of heat.

Record temperatures raise wrenching questions about the future viability of cities such as Phoenix, where taking a midday jog or doing a spot of gardening can pose a deadly risk. Climate change is spurring increasingly punishing heatwaves that are projected to cause tens of thousands of deaths in major US cities in the coming decades.

“There’s a point where the human body can’t cool itself, which means you are either in an air-conditioned space or you’re having serious health problems,” says Gregory Wellenius, an epidemiologist at Brown University. “Some places in the US will get to that point. The way we live, work and play will be altered by rising temperatures.”

Heat already kills more Americans than floods, hurricanes, or other ecological disasters. That puts sweltering cities like Phoenix – where flights were cancelled last year because it was simply too hot – under growing pressure. But heat is rapidly becoming a national problem.

Recent research suggests warming conditions are leading to suicides, as rising nighttime temperatures deprive Americans of sleep and respite from scorching days. A new study, released last week, predicts that a warming climate will drive thousands to emergency rooms for heat illness. The very hottest days experienced in the US could be a further 15F warmer this century if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curbed.

A national plan to deal with heat, however, remains a distant prospect, as the Trump administration attempts to demolish almost every measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It has also outlined deep cuts to climate programmes, and steered federal agencies away from adapting to more frequent and more extreme weather events such as heatwaves, flooding and stronger storms. For the most part, US cities are facing burgeoning heatwaves on their own.

The Center for Disease Control states that around 650 deaths occur a year due to heat but Wellenius argues that this is too conservative, as heat isn’t always explicitly cited on death certificates; with related mortality the total swells to around 3,500. Crucially, the death toll is afflicting US cities that haven’t previously had to spend much time fretting about heat. […]

Though the federal government is currently trying to extricate itself from the scientific reality of climate change, at some point it will have to deal with the societal implications of huge swathes of the country requiring expensive modifications to support a human populace.

“It’s only a matter of time until the west is completely insufficiently prepared for climate change,” says Brian Petersen, a climate change and planning academic at Northern Arizona University. “If we really wanted to be prepared we would be doing a lot of different things that we’re not doing.

“The fact is, there’s not going to be enough refuge for everybody.” [more]

'It can’t get much hotter ... can it?' How heat became a national US problem

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