2023 has been the year where we have seen global temperature records being broken repeatedly, sea surface temperature anomalies in the North Atlantic making the international news, and Antarctica’s sea ice extent hitting new record lows. In a world that has seen the UN describe climate change as being ‘out of control’, Jeff Goodell’s latest book, The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet will be required reading for many and will easily act as the only roadmap we have to navigate the extreme temperatures that are impacting our present world.
Goodell achieves the seemingly impossible – he condenses the multiple issues relating to extreme heat within an engaging and detailed structure, which always focuses on the impact on people and connects us with our humanity. “Wherever we may be headed, we are all on this journey together.” He outlines his aim early in the text:
“In this book, my goal is to convince you to think about heat in a different way. The kind of heat I’m talking about here is not an incremental bump on the thermometer or the slow slide of spring into summer. It is heat as an active force, one that can bend railroad tracks and kill you before you even understand that your life is at risk.”
His writing details experiences and direct encounters with the impact of extreme heat. It is not however, a ‘doomist’ mission statement – rather, he clearly states the impacts being felt now in our warming world, highlighting where countries and cities could make the changes necessary to save lives.
The penultimate migration?
Extreme heat will be the defining feature of the next decade, as it drives climate migration, exposes social injustices, threatens lives, endangers crops and increases the risks of zoonotic diseases – all issues dealt with expertly by Goodell.
“As the temperature rises, it will drive a great migration— of humans, of animals, of plants, of jobs, of wealth, of diseases.”
This is also a topic addressed by Gaia Vince in Nomad Century, where the challenge of climate migration is detailed in full and where rising temperatures force people to move out of stable, safe zones.
Goodell outlines at the start that the ‘Goldilocks’ zones that have helped keep the planet stable are now in danger of being pushed to their limits.
“Extreme heat is remaking our planet into one in which large swaths may become inhospitable to human life. One recent study projected that over the next fifty years, one to three billion people will be left outside the climate conditions that gave rise to civilization over the last six thousand years.”
In recent weeks, we have witnessed residents in China seeking safety underground in air-raid shelters, from the extreme heat, as temperatures remain at record-high levels, with drought compounding the country’s ability to manage and adapt.
Things fall apart – the centre cannot hold
Goodell offers a warning from his opening chapters, where he describes the cautionary tale of a family being overcome and dying owing to extreme heat and hyperthermia while on a hike. The typical structure of most of his chapters is to focus on a specific event where people have been impacted now by extreme heat, in a world that has not yet reached the 1.5°C ‘limit’ agreed in the Paris agreements. These negotiations had the goal of legally binding countries to hold the increase of global average temperature to well below 2°C. In June 2023, the global average was 1.3°C above the pre-industrial levels.
“We simply have not come to terms with it, especially in the way I am describing. It is not how anyone expects to die. In part, it’s because we live in a technologically advanced world where it’s all too easy to believe that the rough forces of nature have been tamed. But it’s also because our world is changing so fast that we can’t grasp the scale and urgency of the dangers we face.”
Goodell outlines the historical and evolutionary steps that allowed humans to adapt and become one of the, if not the most, dominant life-forms on the planet. He describes how walking upright kept us away from the dangers of heat from the ground and how sweat glands allowed us to regulate the temperature of our bodies. “But to take the next step in human evolution, to really allow our ancestors to range widely in the newly warmed world, they still needed one more key evolutionary innovation. They needed to learn how to sweat.”
The discovery of ‘Lucy’ in Ethiopia in 1974, a female human ancestor who lived about 3.2 million years ago, brought more clues about how humans operated, managed and developed the expansion of the species. “Heat management is a survival tool for all life on Earth.”
A brave new world
Humans eventually found themselves building modern cities, though the skills of the past – in terms of building in conjunction and harmony with nature – seem to be lost now, as more and more ‘concrete jungles’ appear. Goodell explains that “by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities”. He indicates, “modern cities are empires of asphalt and concrete and steel, materials that absorb and amplify heat during the day, then radiate it out at night”, carefully outlining the lived experience in cities like Chennai, India, where urbanisation and urban demand has created a melting pot (literally) of extreme issues:
“The ancient south Indian port has become a case study in what can go wrong when industrialization, urbanization and extreme weather converge and a booming metropolis paves over its floodplain to satisfy demand for new homes, factories and offices.”
Goodell additionally explores in detail the issues when culture and extreme heat come into conflict by thoughtfully evaluating the heatwave in France of 2003, where the historical importance of zinc roofs became traps for intense heat. Underlining the fact that when cities were built, they were built for different temperature extremes and range.
“The last time the Earth was hotter than it is today was at least 125,000 years ago, long before anything that resembled human civilization appeared. Since 1970, the Earth’s temperature has spiked faster than in any comparable forty-year period in recorded history. The eight years between 2015 and 2022 were the hottest on record.”
There are difficulties of trying to retrofit a city to adapt to extreme heat, especially where there is no history of climate culture.
“There had been hot days in Paris, but nothing like this. For nine days in August, the daytime temperature was above 95 degrees, sometimes spiking up to 104 degrees. It didn’t cool off much at night either… In less than two weeks in 2003, fifteen thousand people in France died as a direct result of the heat wave.”
Moving to hot zones
Life is moving away from inhospitable zones, as people move to these stressed cities, increasing the pressure and demand on dwindling resources. “The UN estimates that four out of five African countries don’t have sustainably managed water resources and that seven hundred million people will be on the move by 2030.”Goodell summarises that,“climate change compounds risks for cities: heat, floods, failing infrastructure, displaced people”.
Animals are also on the move, meaning more contact between species than before, increasing the risk of zoonotic spillovers – a risk that is being studied carefully by scientists in order to be as prepared as possible. “In the past decade, scientists who study the movement of animals have found that of the four thousand species that they’d tracked, between 40 and 70 percent had altered their distribution. On average, terrestrial creatures are moving nearly twenty kilometers every decade.”
Goodell devotes a whole chapter to the emerging and present threat of spillover diseases, while also detailing the spreading impact of mosquitoes and the threat of the dengue virus:
“But the biggest impact on human health and well-being may be the emergence of new pathogens from animals… By 2080, five billion people, or 60 percent of the world’s population, may be at risk for dengue.”
Furthermore, he highlights the potential dangers currently hiding in the Arctic permafrost, which may yet see the light of day in a warming world:
“Thawing permafrost in the Arctic is releasing pathogens that haven’t seen daylight for tens of thousands of years.”
‘You owe us, and you need to pay’
Who is responsible for putting the people of Earth in this situation and what solutions are they offering should be the simplest question to ask. Planetary changes are now underway that will impact most life on the planet – our fingerprint on our planet has been given the name of the Anthropocene, so how has this happened?
The inclusion in Goodell’s book of attribution science and the impact of Dr Friederike Otto and others’ work, is a vital one in identifying whether climate events could have happened without climate change – and identification of responsibility is just the first step on the way to climate justice.
“‘To me, science is— or can be— a tool for justice,’ she [Otto] told me. ‘Extreme event attribution is the first science ever developed with the court in mind’.”
For example, to directly attribute climate change as the cause of an event could eventually lead to the largest fossil fuel companies being taken to court for damages. This is a highly charged financial battlefield, which may resemble the battle to hold Big Tobacco to account for the consequences of their product.
“ExxonMobil, which, by some measures, is responsible for about 3 percent of historic global CO2 emissions, could be sued for 3 percent of the deaths or property destruction and economic losses from every climate-driven flood and heat wave – past, present, and future. To say that there are hundreds of billions of dollars at stake doesn’t begin to describe it.”
No more ‘Earth is getting greener’
Atmospheric carbon dioxide is now at levels not seen in modern human history and has risen by approximately 50% in the past 200 years, or from the industrial revolution. Goodell successfully and thoroughly rebuts the ‘Earth is getting greener’ argument trotted out by those who wish to deny human-caused climate change, whether this will be the final word to this argument though is perhaps wishful thinking on my part. He points out that simplistic soundbites do not scratch the surface of a complicated interconnected issue.
“And it’s true that as CO2 levels in the atmosphere increase, the Earth is getting greener. But it’s more complicated than that. Like humans, plants also acclimatize, so the effect diminishes with time. CO2 also means more heat, and the effects of heat quickly overwhelm the benefits of higher CO2. It also makes some plants less nutritious. Rice grown in high-CO2 conditions has lower amounts of protein, iron, zinc, and B vitamins.”
When we have a staple crop like rice being threatened by extreme heat, this becomes an issue that needs to be addressed, which Goodell does convincingly. How we feed the world over the next century is not a straightforward problem.
“In the coming years, the challenge of feeding the world will only get more complex. For one thing, the world population is projected to grow from 8 billion today to nearly 10 billion by 2050. To meet the expected demand for food by midcentury alone, global agricultural output will have to rise by more than 50 percent.”
Threatening food production and agriculture is becoming a military weapon, as demonstrated when Russia invaded Ukraine – whether this could be a future war crime could make an interesting legal argument.
Goodell does not content himself with dealing with issues on the land either. He details the impact on marine life of rising temperatures:
“It’s also compelling evidence of how tightly all life on Earth is linked to the ocean. Because we live on land, we often think of heat as a terrestrial event. But as temperatures rise, it’s what happens in the ocean that may have the biggest impact on our future.”
He quotes from the stark 2019 IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, which summarised the impact of the unpredictability of the coming decades, “over the twenty-first century, the ocean is projected to transition to unprecedented conditions”.
It is particularly noticeable that food security featured significantly in this report which had the ocean and cryosphere as its focus. As Goodell notes however, “the ocean is the main driver of our climate system”.
Making an invisible killer visible
Goodell begins to conclude his book by exploring the difficulty of visual communication surrounding extreme heat. “But there are no iconic images of extreme heat.”He outlines that the poignant images of polar bears or dwindling ice, do create an emotional response, but that all too soon, people forget and go about their daily lives, until the next heatwave.
“The memory of the heat wave faded, as memories of heat waves always do, until they become like the fleeting images of a nightmare you’re not quite sure you had. Or a future you don’t want to imagine.”
He argues that “the way we communicate about extreme heat is often distorted by nostalgia for a climate that no longer exists” and that, “we are constantly bombarded by images that suggest that if paradise does exist, it is warm and sunny”.To break this cultural ideology that ‘hot is cool’, will require better language, images and communication, but at present, people simply do not understand the risks of extreme heat with sufficient clarity to perceive it as ‘an extinction force’.
“Moreover, people die because they don’t understand the warning signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke or don’t take precautions and ask for help when those warning signs appear. There is so much ignorance and confusion about what to do in extreme heat situations.”
The undiscovered country
Goodell concludes, not with defeatism, but with a sense of challenge and a connected experience with the rest of the world and in that, there is hope. “There are no maps for this journey we are taking, no virtual reality tours of the road ahead.”
Extreme heat will affect us all eventually. We can’t simply wait for it to arrive, because for some, it is already a daily threat and we cannot look down from our place of safety and not act.
“In many places in the world today, heat is rising faster than our ability to adapt to it.”
The message of this book should be branded in the minds of every person on the planet. This is not just the inherited world we will pass on, but the world of today. A world which has been damaged by our indifference to the impact of our actions. “We have not only continued burning fossil fuels, we have continued burning them with reckless abandon.”
For me then, it is powerful that Goodell frames this as an opportunity, a challenge and a story – and stories have a long-lasting cultural memory.
“This is the great story of our time, one that I feel privileged to tell. And yes, it gets dark sometimes. But it is also endlessly inspiring because I meet so many people who are fighting for the future and reimagining everything about how we live on this planet.”
“Wherever we may be headed, we are all on this journey together.”