In New England back in the day, driving around in summertime with the windows down, the air was cool despite a hot sun. Maybe the temperature would reach the low 90s, but meteorologists always said that occurred only around four days a year. Last month, that standard was broken in Boston, and the prediction is now for a very hot summer this year. On June 30, it hit 100° in the city, and the heat index was well above that. The previous Monday it was 97, and Tuesday, 99.
You don’t have to be a climate scientist to feel what is happening. Here on the Island, many locals commented on the high heat, and I could not help but notice how many folks had turned on the air conditioning in their cars. Even workers in their trucks, if they were equipped with AC, had it on. My old car’s air conditioning gave up the ghost some years ago, and I never replaced it. We suffered through the hot days with little discomfort.
The heat here, however, hardly compared with the Pacific Northwest, especially our neighbors in British Columbia. While it was hot here at the end of June, it was worse in Seattle. A city that used to have summer temperatures in the 70s with cool breezes coming off Puget Sound, it hit 108 there on June 28. This is a city where less than half the homes have air conditioning. They thought they would never need it. Until now. In Dallesport, Wash., the temperature reached a staggering 118.
In Seattle’s southern neighbor, Portland, Ore., on June 26, the temperature was so hot at 112° that it literally warped a power cable for the Portland Streetcar. The wires that run above it sagged so much they threatened to touch the train cars. City officials shut it down. At just over 20 years old, the system is one of the most energy-efficient in the nation. Temperatures did not cooperate. After the high of 112, on June 28, it was 116.
Worse was in British Columbia, where in the small town of Lytton, the high was 121 on June 29, and then a wildfire destroyed most of the town. Observers noted that it never gets that hot in Las Vegas, ever, which is 1,300 miles south, and that Lytton is basically on the same latitude as London, England. Scientists credit the extreme conditions to “a heat dome,” a kind of massive hot air balloon that dangles high in the atmosphere, trapping the heat and increasing it daily.
Annual deaths in the U.S. attributed to heatwaves range from 600 to more than 1,500. Sudden and unexpected deaths are part of the aftershock of extreme temperatures. The reason is that the average increase of temperatures over the past 150 years, primarily due to our use of fossil fuels, is 2 degrees Fahrenheit. This does not sound like much, but it is enough to give people hyperthermia, and kill them. Some predictions indicate another three to five degrees of warming in half the time.
Along with this dreadful outcome, we can expect long periods of drought and wildfires, which the West is already experiencing along with these temperatures.
There is a way out of this deadly trend, but it will take not only a lot of effort. It will also take an agreement that the earth is in crisis. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. With clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems, limiting global warming to 1.5°C, compared to 2°C, could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society.”
This means that all of us must act immediately, including me. My 18-year-old gas guzzler with no air conditioning has to go. It must be replaced with an energy-efficient automobile: at least a hybrid, and even better, an electric vehicle. We must learn to conserve energy in ways we have not yet contemplated. In this way, we will begin to end our dependence on fossil fuels producing greenhouse gases, and turn to generating energy from solar, wind, and other sources if we are to have a safe and sustainable world. And one that has near-normal temperatures.
Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, is currently preparing a second edition of his “American Constitutional History: A Brief Introduction.”