Heat

An office building in downtown Lake Charles, LA, cooled by trailer-mounted units. Photo by John Griswold

 

 

Heat, like any form of power, can be beneficial or disastrous. The sun’s heat makes life possible, but 2020’s temperatures tied for the hottest year on record, which “suggests a swift step up the climate escalator,” says the Post. “And it implies that a momentous new temperature record—breaching the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) warming threshold for the first time—could occur as soon as later this decade.”

The consequences of passing this threshold, it is thought, means the world’s coral reefs (home to 25% of all marine fish) could die, the artic could have no ice in the summer, and ice sheets that lock up 69% of all fresh water on earth could melt, raising sea level and causing coastal inundation. Forty percent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas.

On the way to that tipping point is a lot of other misery. The Southwest is in a megadrought. California had its first “gigafire” last year, which burned more than a million acres. Summer does not start until tomorrow, but several American cities have already set heat records, including Salt Lake City, Palm Springs, and Phoenix. Power systems in Texas and California are close to failure. St. Louis, which has averaged low- to mid-80s over the last two decades in June, broke 100 degrees.

It feels strange to say we live in a time to witness this, since no humans have before. Of course, what it means to witness aspects of climate change varies widely, depending on wealth, access to resources, political stability, and geography. Climate change disproportionately and increasingly affects those in poverty around the world.

The heat and humidity felt in St. Louis blanket the Mississippi Valley like an inland sea. In Lake Charles, Louisiana, 30 miles from both the Gulf and Texas, the temperature is sometimes moderated by the mass of water, but the sun is subtropical and the humidity relentless.

Lake Charles is the victim of four, arguably five, recent climate-based disasters—more “body blows,” as the Mayor calls them, than anywhere in the United States. It has been a devastating amount for its residents to bear witness to. Hurricane Laura, in August 2020, was a Category 4 windstorm that decimated the city. Hurricane Delta, in October, brought flooding and rains that came in through the damage caused by Laura. An unusual cold snap and ice storm in February did more damage, especially to the power grid and water system. In May there was a “500-year” flood, caused by up to 15 inches of rain in 12 hours. (Those 15 inches pool and run, so water was many feet deep in some areas.)

And of course the city was hit hard by the pandemic. As the Harvard School of Public Health says, “Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics.”

“Climate change is something that is affecting this community,” Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter, a Republican, told The Guardian. “I know that phrase can engender a lot of emotions with different people, but it is real and it is happening. I just think it would be ridiculous to say that something is not happening.”

The Mayor’s office this week still has furniture and framed art sitting in the middle of the floor at reception, and his conference room is running a largely-ineffectual portable air conditioner, as some downtown buildings still do not have central air as usual.

People on the Louisiana coast held their collective breath this week as a tropical storm formed in the Gulf and headed this way. By Thursday its “cone”—the area of probable paths—showed it landing well east of Lake Charles, where many buildings are still open to further rain damage. Five more months of a long, hot hurricane season lie ahead.

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