Yesterday afternoon in the scorching Pacific Northwest, as I collected sun-dried towels from the line in my back yard, I gave myself a smug little pat on the back for making efficient use of the heat. Oh look, my laundry dried in record-breaking time.
Of course it did. The air was 103 degrees Fahrenheit and bone-dry, and even hotter at lower elevations nearby. Today, only 20 miles east of here, the National Weather Service predicts an all-time high near 116 degrees. This entire region of the United States is experiencing record-breaking heat that is expected to linger through the week.
But even “record-breaking” doesn’t do justice to what is happening here in the Northwest United States and Western Canada. The temperatures this week are so far off the charts that the National Weather Service has described the heat wave using adjectives such as historic, unprecedented, prolonged, dangerous, and intense. All over the region, yesterday’s highest temperatures were not only all-time highs but also more than 10 degrees above anything previously recorded for late June. It reached 112 degrees at the Portland International Airport yesterday, almost 40 degrees hotter than the average high temperature there at this time of year.
This is not cool.
Your weekend heat roundup thanks to @NWSWPC
Numerous daily high records broken both Sat/Sun, many by double digits!
Seattle (104) and Portland (2x) (108 (Sat), 112 (Sun)) set new All-Time High temperatures.
Forecasts are even hotter today!
Sea – 111
PDX – 114 pic.twitter.com/QpsigMdGZk
— National Weather Service (@NWS) June 28, 2021
I stood outdoors by my laundry line for a while yesterday, allowing the heat to penetrate my skin, releasing dribbles of sweat that spattered my eyeglasses. Focusing on those sensations, I felt a white-hot flash of anger that my species isn’t doing everything it can to stabilize the climate and prevent extreme weather events like this from becoming baked into our future.
This isn’t a “new normal,” as if the climate is leveling off on a slightly higher plateau. As I stood there roasting and furious, I knew that the next day’s weather would be worse, and next year’s probably worse yet. Climate change is accelerating and becoming more and more irreversible (although not yet completely unstoppable).
The many new records being set this week demonstrate how numbers and scientific data have made it possible to document and diagnose the changes humans are inflicting on the environment. But all that information has not persuaded us to cut it out. Numbers offer us only an abstract narrative of climate change. They have made the oppressive seem impressive. They have filled our screens with excited tweets (“forecasts are even hotter today!”) and color-coded maps—replacements for the lived experiences that allow us to observe, with our own eyes and flushed skin, what is happening to the world around us. A fixation on broken records has encouraged us to think of extreme weather as bragging rights, as if we are earning merit badges for our pluck, when in reality we are witnessing a parade of tragedies: parched soil, hungry bears, a fire that consumed a house down the road.
Numbers like 116 degrees Fahrenheit and 420 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide are record-breaking but no longer shocking. What hit me yesterday, though, was the sudden realization that I was standing in a place inhabited by humans for at least 10,000 years and feeling a heat greater than any human before me had ever experienced there. The pioneers who logged this place a century ago—and left behind rusted cans in a shallow grave, a 30-foot bend of sunken railroad track, a small circle of irises—sweated plenty over their saws but never experienced heat like this. Neither did the Native Americans who gathered camas roots in the wetland and thrived on the once-abundant salmon of this region, which require cool water for their survival. As do I.
I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything unique about my experience. Millions of people throughout this region are, at this moment, living through heat that no other humans before them have previously endured here. And many of us are feeling it, because we don’t have air conditioning. We didn’t need it a generation ago. Or even a week ago.
Air conditioning has become a necessity for many people. It can save lives in extreme heat. But air conditioning is also a way of disinforming ourselves—it allows humans to dwell in a fake environment rather than the one we have actually created, and it further degrades the truthful version. It’s an invention for cooling not only ourselves, but also the servers and screens that tell us what the weather is doing outside our own front doors, so that we need not step outside to learn what’s happening. Air conditioning is an “adaptation” unavailable to any of the other species that have evolved to live in the climate Homo sapiens is rapidly destroying. An unprecedented heat wave should be a reality check, but air conditioning increasingly shelters human beings from what is real.
The experts advise us to stay indoors, as if that is more important for our health than a habitable planet with a stable climate. If we need to go outdoors to be reminded of what is at stake—that the real world is becoming an increasingly uncomfortable place to live—that might be the healthiest thing we can do today.
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