New Mexico, where I live, is one of the driest states in America. The drought is so terrible that I spent my first months after I moved to Santa Fe in 2010 puzzled by what people meant when they spoke of the ‘Santa Fe River’ while they pointed at waterless creek beds. But I now understand that before the drought those ditches coursed with free-flowing water.
My troubled state often feels like it’s under constant heat-related threat. Dry timber ignites forest fires. In recent years, even controlled burns supervised by the U.S. Fire Service department have gone wild, becoming raging conflagrations that burn eyes, worsen lung ailments, and destroy homes.
And that was true before this summer’s heat wave, whose effects will be felt disproportionately by low-income and poor people.
Now as I walk the streets, or creep along in traffic, I routinely see fatigued construction workers, exhausted landscaping crews, and riders waiting at the bus stops who look ready to pass out from heat exhaustion. Given that many bus stops are unsheltered, they have taken to lying on the pavement, heads hung bowed and defeated. If possible, they shelter under nearby trees — hunting for shadows like life depended on it. And sometimes – especially for the elderly, the homeless, and the poor – it really does.
Since June, more than a third of the U.S. population has been cautioned by local governments and health professionals to stay inside due to potentially lethal heat. State after state, city after city have experienced record-breaking temperatures. It’s been especially intense near me, in desert cities in the Southwest.
Places like Las Vegas, Nevada, and Denver – torrid regions where even residents accustomed to sweating it out all summer – have never suffered heat so brutally. Las Vegas temperatures recently tied a record set in 1956, with the expectation that temperatures will soon rise higher. Denver hit a new record high of 100 degrees on July 18, after having already set three record highs in 2020. In Phoenix, June temperatures reached 110 degrees for four consecutive days, while night time temperatures never dropped below 40 degrees.
It’s clear this phenomenon is a result of global warming and greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. In July, meteorologists confirmed the hottest temperature ever recorded in London, England. This year, there have already been 1,500 wildfire and heat related deaths in Spain and Portugal. These numbers forebode a tragic summer with a high death toll here in the United States – a likelihood that’s already impacting cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Emergency Medical Services have reported responding to over 250 heat-related emergencies.
Adam Paluka, a spokesperson for Oklahoma EMS, explained “Those numbers are what we would expect to see in mid- to late-August,” rather than cresting before the end of the summer. “It’s very concerning [because the unusually high number] indicates that some of those calls are heatstroke, which can be deadly.”
Between heat stroke, drought, and wildfires, it’s certain the summer of 2022 will steal many lives – and it will be worse for those in poverty. A recent study published in the journal Earth’s Future showed that poor, nonwhite Americans literally endure higher temperatures than white Americans. The study explained that this is because the underprivileged tended to live in congested areas with hot and sticky concrete, more buildings, and fewer trees. It’s hotter under the collar for America’s working poor. And it’s harder too, for countless reasons related to how poverty limits the ability to find comfort.
Last year during a lethal heat wave, the National Weather Service advised that the best means to survive and stay functional was trusty air conditioning. But many Americans can’t afford the expense. Electricity bills during this blistering summer— when air conditioning will be a health necessity rather than a luxury – are expected to increase by 29 percent. And of course millions suffer without a home to live in at all. One glimmer of hope is that the Inflation Reduction Act – just passed by the Democrats and ready for President Biden to sign – starts to tackle this problem with investments that will help American families afford energy-efficient updates to their homes and lower their monthly energy bills.
But this problem is global. As rivers dry up, crops fail due to drought, and climate change triggers hurricanes and flooding, the poor in developing countries are the first to be forced to migrate.
If we’re wise, we will realize that this summer’s heat wave is a foretaste of the future. Don’t tell yourself it’s just “an unusually hot summer.” It’s another step on the road to climate catastrophe that scientists have predicted for decades. This is not a future that anyone will enjoy, or want to see inflicted upon strangers, neighbors, or themselves. Disaster is coming if global warming isn’t halted.
As I’m surviving the heat under the blistering New Mexico sun, I’m thinking about the global future when heat waves will crush whole populations – and what we can do to prevent that. We must take action locally and globally. I thank President Biden for rejoining the Paris Agreement, taking a pledge alongside many other world leaders to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I am also enthusiastic that the Inflation Reduction Act is the largest investment in our climate in U.S. history, paid for in part by taxing the very corporations that have an outsized impact on our climate. But in these dire circumstances, more needs to be done with emergency expediency to save the planet. We can all help by joining a local climate justice organization.