- The book is about the extreme ways in which global warming is already changing our planet and our lives, and what will happen as we face more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, and storms.
- The book covers topics such as how heat waves kill people, how they affect different regions and populations, how they are linked to other environmental disasters, how air conditioning has become a necessity and a problem, and how we can adapt to the heat.
- The book is a compelling and alarming account of the current and future effects of global warming, written with clarity, passion, and empathy. It is also a wake-up call and a reminder that we are not alone in this struggle, but part of a global community that can work together to find solutions.
The Heat Will Kill You First (2023) warns that extreme heatwaves are becoming more common and will dramatically alter life as we know it – they’re an existential danger. Rising temperatures are already changing the planet, shortening seasons and intensifying disasters. Drawing on scientific research and reportage, it argues that intensifying heat will expose societal fault lines and threaten our communities in dire new ways. Extreme heat may be the most serious threat humanity has ever faced.
Introduction: A real understanding of how the heat from climate change will kill us.
Table of Contents
In the summer of 2021, the Pacific Northwest experienced a severe heatwave that caused widespread panic and destruction. Temperatures reached record levels, including 114°F in Portland. A heat wave, born over the Pacific, drifted inland and grew in intensity, creating a heat dome. Ice was the first casualty, and as snowpacks melted, glaciers released torrents of silty water that flooded towns.
Salmon, sensing the water temperature change, began migrating early. But then they struggled to breathe as the rivers warmed. Vegetation was next – unable to escape the heat, it struggled to retain water. Bighorn sheep moved to higher ground, doves panted like dogs, baby hawks jumped to their deaths in an attempt to fly to escape overheating with their siblings.
In 72 hours, the official human death toll was 1,000 – but the actual number is likely higher, especially among the elderly, poor, and medically vulnerable. The town of Lytton, British Columbia was incinerated when temperatures there hit 121°F. Over a billion sea creatures met their deaths over the three days.
Such a heatwave in the Pacific Northwest had been thought to be as likely as snow in the Sahara. But then it happened. Right now, scientists can’t predict where or when such heat will appear next, but they do know that occurrences such as this are a direct result of human activities.
As fossil-fuel burning increases levels of heat-trapping gasses like CO2, the planet warms. Heat is the prime mover of climate chaos, melting ice, drying soil, and even reviving ancient bacteria from thawed permafrost.
Humans might be able to engineer their way out of anything – cities like Los Angeles and Paris are already working to deflect sunlight and have more shade trees. But there are limits to adaptation for Earth’s population of nearly 8 billion. Parts of the Middle East and South Asia are already too hot for humans in summer. And in 2022, 63 percent of China’s population suffered under an extreme two-month heatwave.
Although wealthier individuals might be able to afford protective measures, poverty equates to vulnerability. Heather McTeer Toney, former mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, summed this up neatly: “We’re all in the storm, but we’re not in the same boat.”
And if all that isn’t enough for you to take the climate crisis seriously, just consider these facts: From an economic point of view, researchers estimate heatwaves have cost the global economy $16 trillion since the 1990s. In 2019 alone, extreme heat killed over 489,000 people globally, exceeding deaths from all other natural disasters combined. And heat exposure raises risks of disease, cognitive decline, violence, and suicide.
In the rest of this summary to The Heat Will Kill You First by Jeff Goodell, we’ll look at how life, and humans in particular, have adapted to climate change, how and why we might see mass migration, and why urgent action is required to curb emissions and prevent the deadliest consequences as temperatures continue rising.
Temperature has shaped human evolution
Early life emerged on Earth around volcanic vents, when the planet was still a hot, molten mass. These primitive organisms were ectotherms, relying on external heat sources to regulate body temperature. Around 260 million years ago, endothermy evolved in animals like mammals and birds, enabling self-generated internal heat. This innovation allowed for faster metabolisms, quicker reaction times, and higher activity levels.
As our human ancestors ventured onto the expanding African savannas, managing heat became crucial. Bipedal walking may have enabled better heat dissipation through airflow. Regulating temperature grew more challenging as larger brains – which needed more cooling – evolved in hominins. Around this time, humans also developed a novel cooling mechanism – sweat.
Humans possess both apocrine and eccrine sweat glands. But eccrine glands proved most effective, secreting water-based liquid that lowers skin temperature through evaporation. To make this mechanism more effective, early humans also lost body hair, leaving, mainly, head hair to act as a sunshade for the brain. Sweating gave our ancestors an advantage when chasing prey during the hottest parts of the day when other animals were forced to rest. Thanks to sweat, early humans became superb endurance hunters with long legs and robust muscles.
Other species have their own tactics. For instance, silver Saharan ants scavenge when it’s too hot for their predators but not so hot that they’ll fry in the desert heat; the camel’s hump not only acts as shade and insulation for its internal organs but also to store fat which it uses in times of food scarcity; and savanna chimps rest between five and seven hours during the hottest parts of the day.
All organisms face challenges in a changing environment. Heat has been a powerful evolutionary force that has shaped biology over countless millennia. Yet the rules are shifting quickly, testing the resilience of long-held survival strategies. Humans evolved for a moderate climate, not the extreme heat we now face from climate change. Our adaptive strategies lag behind the pace of modern warming. How we choose to manage heat today will affect the evolutionary road ahead.
But before we look at other effects caused by climate change, in the next section we offer some potentially life-saving advice.
This information might just save your life
Just by being alive, your body generates heat. Basically, it’s a heat machine. But if you get hot too fast, you’re in trouble. And it doesn’t matter whether that heat is self-generated or comes from outside your body.
Ideally, your body maintains an internal temperature of 98°F. When it’s cold, blood flows to your organs to keep them warm. When it’s hot, blood flow is directed to the skin to cool it when you sweat. That mechanism is inhibited when it’s humid as it’s more difficult for you to sweat and consequently more difficult for you to dissipate heat. Get too hot too quickly, and you can easily develop hyperthermia and even heatstroke.
When you engage in a moderate amount of activity in moderate temperatures, you should drink around 16 ounces of water per hour – that’s half a quart, or about two cups. In extreme heat, though, you might be sweating up to three quarts per hour. Drinking water in these circumstances delays heat issues, but you’re only able to replace around two quarts per hour, so dehydration is a real risk.
Just two percent dehydration of your body weight strains your heart through decreased blood volume. It becomes difficult for you to distribute blood to your muscles, skin, brain, and organs.
Now, although staying hydrated is important, it won’t prevent heatstroke by itself – you can still develop hyperthermia even when drinking adequate fluids. So what you need to do is to rapidly cool your core body temperature. You can do this through the use of cold showers or baths and bags of ice. This is most effective if you cool the soles of your feet, the palms of your hands, and the upper part of your face because a lot of blood circulates close to the surface in these areas.
Remember, though, that medications such as Tylenol and aspirin can actually exacerbate the condition as they can interfere with your kidney function, which may in turn make it difficult for your body to cope with the temperature. Any damage from heatstroke will only stop once your core temperature is back to normal.
Now that you have an idea how to survive a heatwave, let’s look at them in more detail in the next section.
Urban heat and heat migration
In Phoenix, Arizona and other modern cities, concrete, steel, and asphalt trap the heat. In what is known as the urban heat island effect, urban areas are hotter than surrounding rural ones – sometimes by as much as 20 degrees at night. This effect can actually have a greater impact locally than climate change.
Maricopa County, Arizona had 339 heat-related deaths in 2021. Okay, compared with the 70,000+ who died in a short heat wave in Europe in 2003, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s three times as many as one decade earlier.
More and more people are choosing to live in cities – perhaps as many as 70 percent will do so by 2050. If we don’t reduce CO2 pollution and change how we live, the number of people at risk from urban heat will rise exponentially. Cities are woefully prepared for the effects on infrastructure that an extreme heat event might cause. A significant blackout would trigger chaos: hospitals would overflow, highways would become gridlocked as people tried to leave the city, fresh water would become scarce, nearby wildfires could make it difficult to breathe, and if the blackout continued, widespread looting would likely ensue.
Urban heat is crueler than heat in nature. It isolates vulnerable individuals who lack access to cooling. Poverty is harder. Simple tasks become adventures. Chennai, India, is a city of 11 million and is home to rich entrepreneurs and business people but also to more than a million living in poverty in its slums. Development has mostly destroyed wetlands and tree cover. Unlike the dry air of Phoenix, in Chennai, it’s jungle heat. Your sweat doesn’t evaporate – it pools. Rich people have air conditioning, but anyone who has to work outdoors has little or no respite from the burning sun. Urban planning here has simply gone wrong. In 2015 the city nearly drowned after days of rainfall. Yet, in 2019 with temperatures soaring across India, the city ran out of water and 10 million liters of water were shipped in each day.
What’s the future for cities like Phoenix and Chennai in the face of climate change? Can such cities be sustainable? And if so, for whom? Will there be a temperature apartheid in which the rich chill in waves of coolness while the poor simmer away in unlivable conditions? Urgent solutions are needed to address urban heat inequality.
As our planet continues to warm, all creatures will need to migrate to cooler climates for their survival. Animals are already moving northward or to higher elevations. Marine life is shifting four times faster than land species, unimpeded by barriers. Humans have more options – at least those with money can buy air conditioning and other resources. But flora and fauna lack such luxuries.
The adaptive capacity of species varies. For example, sharks can swim from Florida to Maine but starfish can’t swim so quickly to cooler water. Polar bears will starve without the sea ice they need for hunting. Even mobile species like salmon struggle with the warming rivers that block their migration. Positive feedback loops amplify the crisis, too – beetles ravaging heat-stressed forests spark more wildfires, emitting carbon that heats the atmosphere further, spurring more beetle destruction.
Climate migration is already reshaping human populations, too. Drought and crop failures in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are displacing millions toward the Middle East, Europe, and North America. UN figures suggest that four out of five African countries have unsustainable water resources. By 2030 more than 700 million people will be on the move. But immigration also fuels right-wing extremism and racism in the receiving nations.
The 2020 US census revealed that even within the US people are migrating from storm-prone coasts to increasingly hot inland areas like Austin, despite the increased risks of extreme heat.
Extreme heat also acts as a deadly barrier for unauthorized border crossings into the US. In Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, activists like John Orlowski leave life-saving water for migrants facing temperatures over 120°F. But Border Patrol uses helicopters and the punishing heat itself as weapons to scatter and trap people.
As climate change accelerates, migration will intensify worldwide. But stark inequities remain in who can move freely and who faces blockades. Heat is a force of both migration and exclusion.
Climate change fuels the spread of disease
In 2020, Jennifer Jones of Tavernier, Florida was bitten by the mosquito Aedes aegypti which transmits diseases like yellow fever and dengue. It likely sensed Jones’s body heat and breath from 30 feet away before biting her. She contracted dengue fever. While the Florida Keys was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, it turned out it was also experiencing a dengue outbreak.
The WHO estimates that there are 390 million dengue infections yearly. As temperatures rise, Aedes aegypti’s territory will expand, putting 5 billion people at risk by 2080.
Meanwhile, thawing Arctic ice is freeing ancient pathogens and warming waters are bringing flesh-eating vibrio bacteria to the US East Coast post-hurricanes. Scary as the thought of these may be, they may not be the biggest threat. As already mentioned, habitat loss and global warming are forcing animals to migrate, which is increasing contact between species. Of mammals’ 40,000 viruses, a quarter could infect humans, too. In the coming decades, it’s likely that 15,000 viruses may jump to humans through new animal encounters.
Look at bats, for example. COVID-19 likely originated in Chinese bats, but nobody is sure how it jumped to humans, although theories abound. It’s become clear, though, that bats harbor infectious diseases very well due to their extremely tolerant immune systems. The list of viruses that have jumped from bats to humans is very long. Climate change continues to disrupt bat habitats and, as a result, there are even more interactions with people. In 1998, the Nipah virus emerged in Malaysia, spread by bats and pigs. It’s 75 percent fatal and mutates readily. If Nipah ever becomes more transmissible as a result, we’ll be entering Black Death territory.
Turning back to Aedes aegypti, it thrives in warmth. Its diseases have risen 30-fold in 50 years due to climate and land use changes. In Houston, for instance, as the city gets hotter, Aedes aegypti is moving in, threatening millions. Houston has seen dengue and Zika flare-ups already. And in Africa, Malaria will also rise as mosquitoes shift habitats.
These realities are grave – but there has to be some hope. In the next section, Goodell gives us just that.
A glimmer of hope
Goodell says that the story of the climate crisis is a difficult and dark one, and that it’s been a privilege to research and write about it. There are many inspiring people out there fighting for the future and trying to reimagine how we might live.
It’s through those people and others like them that we can build a new future and a better world. But we all have to want that.
The COVID-19 pandemic quickly normalized the deaths of others – in particular the elderly, sick, and poor. The US alone suffered thousands of deaths each day. It may well be that in the coming decades, we may also become accustomed to the suffering and deaths of many from extreme heat. We might just accept it and not let it affect our day-to-day lives. Or perhaps there’ll be a revolution and we’ll tear everything down and start from scratch. For some, that day can’t come soon enough.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a map to guide us on the journey ahead – but the story of how easily heat kills us acts as a powerful reminder of the interconnectedness of life on this planet. We’re not alone on this journey. We’re in it together.
Although life on Earth has evolved in response to changes in the conditions and environment, our ability to adapt now lags behind the rate of change. Climate change will result in mass migration like the planet has never seen before, and will require us to revisit and adapt the way we live. As habitats are lost and animals are also forced to migrate, there’ll be an increase in contact between different species and humans, which will lead to viral diseases jumping from species to species. Diseases will further spread through insects when the territories they inhabit expand due to climate change. But there is hope if we remember that we’re together in this!
About the Author
Science, Politics, Nature and the Environment
The book is about the extreme ways in which our planet is already changing due to global warming and the impact that will have on everything from our food supply to disease outbreaks. It is also about what will happen to our lives and our communities as we face more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, and storms. The author, Jeff Goodell, is an environmental journalist who has traveled to various places around the world to witness and report on the effects of rising temperatures. He criticizes the term global warming as sounding too gentle and soothing, and argues that we need to adapt to the new reality of a scorched planet.
The book covers topics such as:
- How heat waves kill people directly by causing heat stroke, dehydration, and organ failure, as well as indirectly by increasing the risk of infections, violence, and mental health problems.
- How heat waves affect different regions and populations differently, depending on their geography, infrastructure, culture, and socioeconomic status. For example, the author describes how Paris suffered a devastating heat wave in 2003 that killed 15,000 people, mostly elderly and poor, because the city was not designed for such high temperatures and lacked adequate cooling systems.
- How heat waves are linked to other environmental disasters such as wildfires, droughts, floods, and storms. For example, the author explains how the 2021 heat wave in the Pacific Northwest triggered massive wildfires that destroyed the town of Lytton in British Columbia and killed hundreds of people and millions of animals.
- How heat waves are affecting the natural world, such as melting glaciers and ice caps, bleaching coral reefs, shifting seasons and ecosystems, and threatening biodiversity and food security.
- How air conditioning has become a necessity for many people to cope with the heat, but also a major contributor to global warming. The author explores the history, technology, politics, and ethics of air conditioning, and how it has shaped our societies and cultures.
- How we can adapt to the heat by changing our behaviors, policies, technologies, and values. The author discusses various solutions and strategies such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving energy efficiency and renewable sources, enhancing urban planning and design, promoting social justice and equity, increasing public awareness and education, and fostering resilience and innovation.
The book is a compelling and alarming account of the current and future effects of global warming on our planet and ourselves. The author writes with clarity, passion, and empathy, blending scientific facts with personal stories and anecdotes. He does not shy away from exposing the harsh realities and challenges that we face, but also offers some hope and inspiration for action. The book is well-researched and well-referenced, drawing on various sources such as scientific studies, reports, interviews, articles, books, podcasts, documentaries, etc. The book is also well-structured and well-paced, covering a wide range of topics in a logical and coherent way. The book is engaging and informative for both general readers and experts alike.
The book is not without its limitations or criticisms. Some readers may find the book too depressing or pessimistic, or too optimistic or unrealistic. Some readers may disagree with some of the author’s opinions or arguments, or question some of his sources or evidence. Some readers may want more details or examples on certain topics or issues. Some readers may find some of the language or imagery too graphic or disturbing.
Overall, the book is a powerful and important contribution to the public discourse on climate change. It is a wake-up call for everyone to take action before it is too late. It is also a reminder that we are not alone in this struggle, but part of a global community that can work together to find solutions. The book is highly recommended for anyone who cares about the future of our planet and ourselves.