Despite the misery many of us are experiencing in the middle of this North Carolina summer, our area has not yet suffered the repeated triple-digit temperatures that have deluged much of the rest of the country and other parts of the world, leading to death. But it’s just a matter of time before we broil as others are now.
And, yes, we mean death. A heat wave killed more than 1,000 people in Portugal and Spain last week as all-time temperature records were set in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe. Out-of-control wildfires spurred by the heat proliferated. In the UK, where fewer than 5% of homes have air conditioning — they’ve never needed it — many had to seek shelter elsewhere.
In the U.S., temperatures soared across the Southern Plains and parts of the Northeast last week. More than 80% of the U.S. population — around 265 million Americans — experienced highs above 90 degrees. In the mid-South and Tennessee Valley, temperatures repeatedly rose above 100 degrees.
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Last summer, the heatwave in the Northeast led to approximately 600 deaths.
When artificial temperature control — aka air conditioning — is not available, heat kills as the human body’s natural mechanisms eventually prove unable to cope. We weren’t built for this.
It’s not far from literal to say that the planet is on fire. And the heat will continue to rise until we take climate change seriously and make substantial and probably, at this stage, painful changes — changes we should have begun making decades ago.
Some problems we face in life are urgent rather than important — they require our immediate attention or disaster is imminent.
Other problems are important but can wait.
The rising price of food and gasoline (which actually finally seems to be abating) are urgent. Paying the rent or mortgage — these are all urgent.
Every day, climate change shifts a little more from being important — and thus delayable — to urgent. That’s what happens when you fail to patch the hole in your roof — it grows larger until you need to replace the entire roof.
Taking action to halt climate change earlier would have been the fiscally conservative thing to do. But politicians, catering to their energy company donors, insisted that the problem wasn’t real. Politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz portrayed scientists who talked about the danger as “climate alarmists.”
So now we suffer. We suffer from the heat, which will burden us with the increased expense of indoor climate control and more water for our gardens and lawns. We suffer from the instability that accompanies climate crises around the globe, which contribute to higher food prices. We suffer from increased carbon in the air, which makes breathing more difficult for some children and the elderly. We suffer with the burden of additional heat-related deaths, both in the U.S. and abroad.
It’s now too late to prevent many of the painful results of the Earth’s warming. Even if we miraculously stopped emitting greenhouse gases today and planted a billion trees next week, it would take years to reverse the rise in global temperatures.
So we must take steps to mitigate the harmful effects, like Florida, which is preparing to implement a $270 million plan to deal with coastal flooding and stronger hurricanes. In North Carolina, we must prepare to deal with the after-effects of the worst: drought, flood and wildfire.
Some say it’s not too late. Some say that the proper legislation, like the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act supported by some in Congress, accompanied by heavy investments in renewable energy and international agreements implemented with American leadership, could turn the tide.
But many obstacles stand between us and those solutions, most of them political.
Do we, at this point, dare hope? Do we dare pray that the American people will wake to the need for change and be willing to make the necessary sacrifices — for our sake and the sake of future generations?
We could do it — if we do it together.