How Many People Have To Die Before Congress Acts on Climate?

Increasingly more people will die if the U.S. and the rest of the world don't speed up action on the climate crisis.

How Many People Have To Die Before Congress Acts on Climate?
Photo by Alexander Grey / Unsplash

I woke up at dawn last Thursday—the same day that Sen. Manchin would announce his refusal to vote for additional climate measures—to the screeching sound of my bedroom’s air conditioner dying. Later that day, I gazed at images of the second glacier avalanche to occur in a week; watched a video of fires burning in parts of Portugal, Spain, France, and Croatia; and read a Twitter thread on unprecedented high temperatures that were scorching parts of Europe and China.

But that was last week. This week, so far, has brought record-breaking heat to the UK—40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit)—as well as vegetation fires in London and wildfires in France and Spain. Most homes and buildings in the UK lack air conditioning, making it more challenging for them to cope with these kinds of temperatures, which scientists project will become more commonplace by 2050. As of this past Sunday, more than 1,000 people in Portugal and Spain had died because of a days-long heatwave. But just as concerning is the fact that “From Friday into the weekend, a new heat dome will build over southern Europe with extremely high temperatures over Spain, France, and Italy, which have already endured multiple bouts of punishing heat this summer,” reports the Washington Post.

These shrinking windows between heatwaves are concerning. Last month, the Sacramento area, where I live, experienced 11 days of temperatures reaching at least 100 degrees, “the second highest number of days for June according to National Weather Service records dating back to 1877.” These temperatures aren’t at all unusual for our area, but as the planet continues to warm from rising greenhouse gas emissions—a consequence of burning fossil fuels beyond Earth’s carbon uptake capacity—scientists expect that the duration of heat waves will increase along with the record-shattering temperatures.

“Because of the shorter recovery period between events, the effects of these compound heatwaves are often significantly worse than stand-alone events,” suggests a study cited by Joseph Albanese from the Princeton Environmental Institute. This doesn’t give people time to recover and can put a strain on the grid—increasing the odds of more power outages. Shorter periods between heatwaves can also decrease crop yields and damage vital infrastructure, such as roads and rail lines. The study, published in Earth’s Future, recommends that communities develop warning systems for heatwaves that also account for the additive impacts of recent ones.

NASA reports that June 2022 tied with June 2020 as the warmest on record since weather records began in 1880. NOAA has declared it to be the sixth warmest. Though some discrepancies exist in the numbers, it doesn’t much matter, given that the “top six warmest Junes in the historical record are close to being tied, being separated by only 0.08 degree Celsius (0.14°F) in the NOAA database,” writes Jeff Masters at Yale Climate Connections. Global warming has clearly not “paused” over the last eight years, as some climate skeptics have recently claimed.

In the U.S., twenty-eight states—105 million people—are currently under a heat advisory, including those living in humid parts of the country. Humidity makes heatwaves more dangerous because our sweat can’t evaporate as quickly, since humid air can’t hold as much water as dry air. This can create a dangerous situation for people who don’t have access to air conditioning or cooling centers. But even in dry climates, temperatures above the mid-90s can be dangerous: “In dry environments, your sweat vanishes quickly, but in doing so, depletes the body of moisture. In ‘dry heat’ environments, like across the Desert Southwest, dehydration can hit fast as the atmosphere works to desiccate the body,” writes meteorologist Matthew Cappucci at the Washington Post.

According to the Department of Energy, a quarter of U.S. residents don’t have air conditioning. Many who live in the Pacific Northwest, Coastal California, and the Northeast haven’t needed it because summers are usually mild in those regions. Though that assumption has already been challenged, as we saw in the 2021 heatwave in the Pacific Northwest, when temperatures in Portland soared to 116 degrees Fahrenheit, causing around 200 deaths in Washington State and Oregon combined. The New York Times has estimated that that number might have been closer to 600.

Heatwaves kill more people in the U.S. than any other type of weather event, and pose the greatest risks to the elderly, young children, people with chronic health conditions, outdoor workers, and socially vulnerable populations. According to a sweeping report published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast will see more heat-related premature deaths than the rest of the contiguous U.S. The report goes on to say that some of the cities projected to have the greatest increase in heat-related deaths are located in states where people aren’t used to hotter temperatures, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

My fear is that many people in the U.S. are watching extreme heat events unfold across the globe and thinking they aren’t related to climate change or that they are happening elsewhere and are unlikely to impact them. This could prove extraordinarily dangerous to people who don’t have air conditioning or can’t afford to pay the higher utility costs associated with such events. The reliability of the grid is also at stake, both this summer—as energy experts and grid operators have expressed concern about meeting the country’s power needs because of expected extreme heat and other factors—and in the coming years as these temperature extremes become more common.

You would be forgiven for wondering why we can’t just rely on markets now that the comprehensive climate bill has failed. But here’s what David Roberts, a journalist who writes extensively about energy, had to say about that in an interview with William Brangham at PBS News Hour. “ To hit our temperature targets that we're talking about, we definitely need public policy to accelerate them, because we're at the point now where no purely market-driven substitution could ever work fast enough.” And it’s important to hit those targets since speed is everything. The carbon we emit today and have emitted in the past will linger in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years. Pumping out less carbon does not lower temperatures because we’re still adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, only more slowly. We must reach essentially net zero to prevent additional warming.

But we haven’t done that. If the climate provisions in the Biden Administration’s agenda had passed—there’s still a minute possibility that some of them will—we might have come close to meeting our commitments to limit warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius under the Paris Agreement. And, according to many economists, passing climate and energy legislation would have actually helped lower inflation, despite what Sen. Manchin has said. It’s also worthwhile noting that Sen. Manchin accepted more money from the fossil fuel industry during the last election cycle than any other Congress member. Though when looking at all election years, he doesn’t even make the top 20. Because of Congress’ failure to pass significant climate legislation, it will become increasingly important for states to cobble together their own plans. As Robinson Meyer writes in The Atlantic, “They might especially focus their attention on the transportation sector, which is now the most climate-polluting part of the economy.” That electric cargo bike I’ve been eyeing is looking a lot more enticing.

Fortunately, my landlord has offered to replace my old, broken air conditioner, and I’m planning to choose a more environmentally friendly one. But in light of our government’s slow response to the climate crisis, it’s critical we take preemptive steps to stay safe during extreme heat events—and other types of extreme weather conditions—and not wait until they’ve already happened. In choosing a cooling unit, if you have the means or need to do so, it’s important to choose one that’s appropriate for the type of climate you live in while also considering how often your part of the country experiences—or may soon experience—wildfire smoke.  

I can’t stop wondering: what will it take for politicians to stop dithering and pass meaningful climate policies? It doesn’t help that they don’t even represent the majority of U.S. voters. How many people have to die or become displaced from fires, floods, deadly heatwaves, and storms before there’s enough momentum to speed up the transition to clean, renewable, and cheaper energy? Hello, Congress? Is anyone out there?