Friday, June 27, 2014

In the News: Maps Show a Sweltering Future for U.S.

My BFF during the summertime...
Nearly five years ago, I was laying on my couch recovering from major knee surgery and feeling utterly miserable. My misery wasn't due to the pain of recovering from surgery (thank goodness for prescription pain meds!) but rather because of the sweltering, unbearable, oppressive, and completely-inexplicable-to-a-western-Washingtonian heat that was smothering the region.  I'm sure that all of us remember the heat wave in late July 2009, where for a week straight the temperatures were over 100 degrees by noon, and didn't drop a degree below eighty overnight.

There I was, in my tiny dark cottage with blanket-covered windows to keep out the sunlight, leaving a sweat-stained outline of my body on the couch, misting my arms and legs with a spray bottle and desperately wishing for air conditioning, because the three fans pointed at me were doing little more than pushing around ninety-degree air.  Might as well have been using a hairdryer to try to cool off.  Like I said: miserable.  And forget trying to go outdoors... the heat seemed to suck the air right from your lungs, leaving you sweaty and winded in seconds. Even the shade offered no respite from the hot, still air.

Those days were unarguably unpleasant.  Now just imagine having an extra MONTH of extreme temperatures each year like those we experienced in 2009.  According to the Risky Business report released earlier this week, that is the reality we'll be facing if we do not take immediate action on climate change.

The Risky Business report was prepared by the Rhodium Group, an economics research firm, and was commissioned by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; former Treasury Secretary (under George W. Bush) Henry Paulson; and Tom Steyer, a prominent entrepreneur and environmental activist.

The report examined the potential economic effects of climate change in the United States (bottom line: we can't afford NOT to act on climate), but what really grabbed the attention of the media were the following two images from the report, depicting projected increases in days of extreme heat across the US.

This first chart shows the average days per year with temperatures over 95 degrees.  The interesting part about this chart is that it generally follows the lifespan of those of us in the "millennial" generation.  So I can see exactly how hot and awful things could be here in western Washington when I'm old and gray... 20 days per year with temperatures over 95 degrees? No thanks.

Source: Risky Business

This second chart shows the number of days per year wherein the combined heat and humidity will make it unsafe for people to be outdoors, under three different scenarios: business as usual (no reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases), medium emissions reductions, and large emissions reductions.

Source: Risky Business

Take a look at that chart for the business as usual scenario for the year 2200: this shows that in the Puget Sound region, there could be 15-20 days every year where it is unsafe for people to be outdoors due to risk of heatstroke.  That's nearly three weeks of being confined to the indoors. This means that future generations--our great- great- great-... grandchildren-- won't have the same opportunities to enjoy our beautiful Pacific Northwest nature that we've had.  So many of the summertime memories of fun and adventure in the outdoors will be unavailable to them.  How completely tragic.

But there is hope here.  Take a look at the "large emissions reductions" scenario.  If we can pull our act together and force our government, businesses, and economy to embrace clean, renewable energy and decrease CO2 emissions, then we can still avoid some of the worst effects of climate change. We can pass down a more livable planet to future generations. If that isn't a compelling reason to act on climate, then I don't know what is.  The EPA's recently announced Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants 30% by the year 2030 is a great start, but there is much more work to be done.

Although we will feel some effects of climate change regardless of any drastic actions taken in the near future, it is so important to remember that we can still avoid the worst effects by taking those drastic actions.  We can still avoid the potential for that infamous 2009 western Washington heat wave becoming a regular and prolonged occurrence.  Think of the misery, the sweating, the lethargy, being confined to the indoors and glued to the weather report on your television, searching for some glimmer of hope that Steve Pool will tell you that the temperatures will cool off soon... only to be left in despair with a ten-day forecast of blazing sunshine and 100-degree temperatures. That's enough motivation for me!

If you're one of those business-minded types who enjoys economics, check out the Risky Business report to view the climate change issue from a whole new angle!


  1. After reading this article I saw the correlation between those in denial about climate change, and those in denial about Alzheimer's disease ever invading ones life. Unfortunately, denial isn't an effective preventative measure against either of these conditions. Great article Lainey.

    1. Thanks for the comment! :) Very interesting - there is a similarity there. I think denial is a natural human reaction whenever we're faced with something so overwhelming -- whether it is a disease that will rob us of our memories and ability to function (and ultimately our lives), or whether it is climate change which will radically change our planet, making life very unpleasant and survival difficult. But here's the good news: in both cases, we have experts telling us that there are things that can be done to minimize the risk. Once we get over the denial and start looking at things honestly, we can then take those risk-minimizing actions and take a step toward a better outlook for the future.