New Study Predicts Millions of Americans May Become Exposed to “Off the Charts”

Climate scientist Michael Mann discusses the increasing frequency and severity of heat waves around the globe

Real News Network - July 26, 2019

Story Transcript

DIMITRI LASCARIS This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network from Montreal, Canada.

This summer, the climate news cycle has been dominated by two searing heat waves that have afflicted Western Europe. In one European city after another, the record for the all-time high temperature has been broken. Just today, July 25th, the record for the highest temperature in Paris, France was broken again. In the slight, the temperature soared today to a remarkable 42.4 degrees Celsius, or 108.3 degrees Fahrenheit. As Western Europe has been baking in the unprecedented heat, experts from the Union of Concerned Scientists issued an alarming new report about future levels of extreme heat back in the United States. According to that report, in less than 20 years, millions of people in the United States could be exposed to dangerous “off the charts” heat conditions of 127 degrees Fahrenheit or more. For those of you who deal with Celsius, that is nearly 53 degrees. The report goes on to predict that in 60 years, over one-third of the US population could be exposed to such conditions, posing unprecedented health risks.

Now here to discuss this with us is Michael Mann. Michael is a Distinguished Professor and Director of the Earth Science Systems Service Center at Penn State University. He’s the author of several books. Perhaps most famously in 2012, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. And most recently, The Tantrum That Saved the World, a children’s book on climate change which he co-authored with Megan Herbert. Michael joins us today from State College in Pennsylvania. Thank you for coming back on The Real News, Michael.

MICHAEL MANN Thanks. It’s great to be with you.

DIMITRI LASCARIS Michael, before we get into the meat of the report, I’d just like you to briefly explain for our audience the concept of the heat index, which takes into account not only temperature but also humidity. Why is humidity important for the purposes of human health?

MICHAEL MANN You know, the more humid the air is, the more difficult it is for you to evaporate moisture into the atmosphere. When you perspire, that is one of the ways that the human body cools off— by producing liquid water that then evaporates into the atmosphere that transports heat away from you into the atmosphere. It’s a way of cooling off. And the more humid the air is, the more difficult it is for that moisture to evaporate from you, so it’s more difficult to cool down. This is particularly a problem for the elderly and for infants who are especially prone to heat stress. And so it’s really that combination of the heat and the humidity that threatens human health. And the heat index is one way to try to combine those two things into a measure of how unhealthy that heat is.

DIMITRI LASCARIS Now this report examines three future scenarios. In the worst-case scenario, we take no action to reduce emissions. In the second less heinous scenario, we take slow action to reduce emissions. And in the best-case scenario, we take rapid action to reduce emissions. I’d like to talk to you first about the worst-case scenario because regrettably, that appears to be the path the United States administration is on. In the no-action scenario, what changes according to this report can the US anticipate in terms of extreme heat during the next [inaudible]?

MICHAEL MANN Yeah. Well, the good news is that these scenarios don’t really separate until a couple decades out there. So there’s still time for us to get on the right path, but you’re absolutely right. The current administration has essentially dismantled much of the progress that we had made under the previous administration in meeting our obligations under the Paris treaty and in bringing down our carbon emissions here in the US. The good news though is that because of what states, and cities, and businesses, companies, corporations are doing, we may still meet our Paris obligations. Now, that’s not enough.

If we are to avert ever more catastrophic warming of the planet to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, or ideally one and a half degrees Celsius, which many of the experts who’ve looked at the impacts of climate change have said that that’s really where we start to truly get into the danger zone. If we’re to avert those catastrophic levels of warming, then we need to be bringing our carbon emissions now down dramatically beyond what is committed in the Paris Agreement. So we’ve got a lot of work to do, but there is still time to do it. If you crunch the numbers, what you find is we can still bring that emissions curve down. Ramp that curve down fast enough to avoid crossing the threshold of truly dangerous planetary warming. ...
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