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Annals of a Warming Planet
It’s Not the Heat—It’s the Humanity
Rising air temperatures remind us that our bodies have real limits.
By Bill McKibben
June 23, 2021
Last week, researchers at nasa and noaa found that “the earth is warming faster than expected.”Photograph by Kyle Grillot / Bloomberg / Getty
It’s hard to change the outcome of the climate crisis by individual action: we’re past the point where we can alter the carbon math one electric vehicle at a time, and so activists rightly concentrate on building movements large enough to alter our politics and our economics. But ultimately the climate crisis still affects people as individuals—it comes down, eventually, to bodies. Which is worth remembering. In the end, we’re not collections of constructs or ideas or images or demographics but collections of arteries and organs and muscles, and those are designed to operate within a finite range of temperatures.
I happened to be talking with Dr. Rupa Basu, the chief of air-and-climate epidemiology at California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, on Friday, a day after Palm Springs had tied its all-time heat record with a reading of a hundred and twenty-three degrees Fahrenheit. That’s hot—hotter than the human body can really handle. The day before, with temperatures topping a hundred degrees before noon, a hiker in the San Bernardino National Forest had keeled over and died. “We talk a lot about biological adaptability, but as humans we’re not supposed to adapt to temps that high,” Basu said. “If your core body temp reaches a hundred and five, that means death can be imminent. As humans, we can only adapt so much. Once the air temperature is above a hundred and twenty, there’s only so much you can do, except rely on air-conditioning and other mitigation strategies. And that puts a lot of pressure on the power grid, and that could result in brownouts and blackouts. It’s not really a long-term, chronic solution. It’s just living for the moment and hoping it works.”
And often it doesn’t work. Last summer, Basu published a remarkable paper, a “systematic review” of research on pregnant women. The studies she looked at—which collectively examined more than thirty-two million births—found that higher temperatures in the weeks before delivery were linked to stillbirths and low birth weights. “It’s weeks thirty-five and thirty-six that seem to be the trigger,” she told me recently. “What we think is happening is that a lot of the mechanisms from heat-related illness start with dehydration. If there are symptoms of dehydration, those might be overlooked. If someone doesn’t connect it with heat, they might not get to a cooler environment. You see vomiting—and people might say, ‘That’s O.K. Bound to happen when you’re pregnant.’ But it’s because of the dehydration.” Further along in the pregnancy, she said, “your body releases oxytocin, which triggers contractions. And if it happens prematurely—well, heat raises the level of oxytocin faster. If you’re not able to thermoregulate, get the temp down, it can trigger low birth weight or, earlier on, miscarriage or stillbirth.” Past a certain point, the body diverts blood flow to the subcutaneous layer beneath the skin, where the body’s heat can radiate out into the air. That diverts the blood “away from vital organs,” Basu said. “And away from the fetus.”
The brain is an organ, too. For all its metaphysical magnificence, it’s a hunk of cells that comes with operating specs. Again, don’t let its temperature get too high: in 2018, Basu published a study showing the effect of seasonal temperatures on mental health. A ten-degree-Fahrenheit jump in temperature during the warm season was associated with an increase in emergency-room visits for “mental-health disorders, self-injury/suicide, and intentional injury/homicide” of 4.8, 5.8, and 7.9 per cent, respectively. Those are big numbers, and the search for mechanisms that explain them is fascinating. Among other things, certain medications impede the body’s ability to thermoregulate: beta-blockers, for instance, decrease the flow of blood to the skin, and antidepressants can increase sweating, Basu told me. “There’s also some evidence to show that heat affects neurotransmitters themselves—that everything is just a little bit slower.”
Both these effects show up more strongly in this country in Black and Hispanic patients—probably, as Basu explained, because those groups disproportionately live in low-income neighborhoods. “They’re often in areas where there are more fossil-fuel emissions, fewer green spaces, and more blacktop and cement, which really absorbs and retains the heat,” she said. “And also living closer to freeways. That exacerbates air pollution. And, with the heat, that’s a synergistic effect. It’s environmental racism that leads to these differences in exposure.” Some people, she added, bristle at hearing that: “Someone said to me, ‘Oh, so now we’re breathing different air?’ And I said, ‘Yes, that’s exactly right. We can track it down to the Zip Code level.’ ” Call it critical race epidemiology.
Which leads us, of course, back to politics. There’s only so much that doctors can do to help us deal with heat; ultimately, it’s up to the Joe Bidens and the Joe Manchins—and the Xi Jinpings—of the world. “We’re seeing these kinds of extreme temperatures in Palm Springs right now,” Basu said. “If we start to see those in more populated areas, imagine the public-health impact.” That’s obviously what’s coming. Last week, researchers at nasa and noaa found that, according to satellite data, “the earth is warming faster than expected” and that the planet’s energy imbalance—the difference between how much of the sun’s energy the planet absorbs and how much radiates back out to space—has doubled since 2005, an increase equivalent to “every person on Earth using 20 electric tea kettles at once.” And the National Weather Service is forecasting a heatwave this week for the Pacific Northwest that could smash regional records.
Amid the endless deal-making—the U.S. last backed off what would have been a G-7 plan to end coal use—the human body is a useful bottom line. “I think what we need to do is prevent the warming,” Basu said, when I asked her for a prescription. “So it doesn’t get that hot.”
Passing the Mic
A 1999 graduate in sustainable design from the University of Virginia, Dana Robbins Schneider led sustainability efforts for many years at the commercial-real-estate giant J.L.L. As the director of sustainability at the Empire State Realty Trust, she oversaw an energy-efficiency retrofit of the iconic Manhattan skyscraper on Thirty-fourth Street, which demonstrated how landlords could save both carbon and money, and which helped pave the way for Local Law 97, the city’s effort to force large buildings to improve their energy performance. (Our interview has been edited.)
How did the Empire State Building retrofit come about? What are the bottom-line before-and-after numbers?
The Empire State Building’s ten-year energy-efficiency retrofit started as an exercise to prove—or disprove—that there could be an investment-and-return business case for deep energy retrofits. Once it was proven, it was implemented to save energy and reduce costs for both the tenants and Empire State Realty Trust. We partnered with the Clinton Climate Initiative, Rocky Mountain Institute, Johnson Controls, and J.L.L. to manage the project. Through the rebuild, we were able to cut emissions from the building by fifty-four per cent and counting, which has saved us upward of four million dollars each year, with a 3.1-year payback. We have attempted to inform policy with local, state, and federal governments to share what we’ve learned to reduce emissions—and to meet E.S.R.T.’s target for the building to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.
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As a result of the retrofit, the building is in the top twenty per cent in energy efficiency among all measured buildings in the United States. E.S.R.T. is the nation’s largest user of a hundred-per-cent green power in real estate and was named Energy Star Partner of the Year in 2021.
What were the key interventions? And do people working in the building even realize that much has changed?
The biggest lesson we learned was that there is no silver bullet—there is silver buckshot. A combination of measures that interact effectively delivers optimal savings. More than fifty per cent of the energy consumed in an office building is consumed by tenants, so the actions of tenants are critical. Landlord-tenant partnerships are the only way to drive deep energy-and-emissions reductions in the built environment.
The best practice for the lowest-cost implementation of energy-efficiency strategies is to make the right steps in the right order. Start with the envelope, or the exterior, of the building. Each project contributes to the success of other projects, so, when we measure effectiveness and R.O.I., it’s important to look at how each project interacts with another.
We were able to decrease energy use through strategic tactics throughout the building, with an emphasis on the reuse of existing resources. We executed eight major projects, which included:
Do you hear from other building owners wondering how to do this? What do you think are the keys to getting it done?
From the earliest announcement, we have shared all our work for free with the public, and we have rolled out best practices from the Empire State Building’s deep energy retrofit to our entire portfolio. E.S.R.T. has a target to achieve carbon neutrality as a commercial portfolio by 2035. With Local Law 97 emissions limits effective in 2024, many building owners are unsure of how to make their buildings compliant. Our chairman, president, and C.E.O. serves on the LL97 Advisory Board and on the LL97 Technical Pathways for Commercial Buildings Working Group to develop and improve policy based on practice, and we are the only commercial landlord to serve on the Implementation Advisory Board.
The Empire State Building has long been a modern marvel, and we intend to keep that reputation as we transparently share our research and best practices in our annual sustainability report. As we prove that it works in the “World’s Most Famous Building,” which this year celebrates its ninetieth anniversary, we prove that it can work anywhere.
Climate School
The searing heat in Arizona and Utah has translated into early-season wildfires. The Pack Creek Fire, in the La Sal Mountains, scorched, among many other things, Ken and Jane Sleight’s Pack Creek Ranch, a literary landmark, where for decades many of the region’s writers have gathered. Some of them have put together a chapbook, “La Sal Mountain Elegies,” which includes Terry Tempest Williams’s account of being at the ranch, in 1989, on the day that Edward Abbey died.
There’s another controversy emerging at the Nature Conservancy.—this time about the use of forests. Last summer, a coalition of environmental groups around the country sent T.N.C. a letter asking it to reëvaluate support for promoting forestry as a “natural climate solution” and, in particular, to come out against burning trees to produce electricity—the so-called biomass energy that scientists now understand to be a major climate threat and that sociologists know to be a prime example of environmental racism. T.N.C. executives replied in a letter, saying that “reasonable people can disagree on approaches.” (I should note that I served for a decade as a board member of the Adirondack chapter of the Conservancy, and last winter I participated in a fund-raiser for it.) T.N.C. gets things done, but one of its strengths—access to lots of high-powered financial players who can bankroll their conservation efforts—can sometimes pose a problem, at least of optics. A board member and investor from Enviva sits on the group’s advisory board for its NatureVest “in-house impact investing program,” and Enviva is building plants across the Southeast to produce wood pellets for burning in European power plants. Danna Smith, of the Dogwood Alliance, which led the coalition that sent the letter last summer, told me, “Unfortunately, T.N.C. seems to be centering the financial interests of large landowners, investors, and corporations in ways that are seriously undermining efforts to protect biodiversity, solve the climate crisis, and advance environmental justice.”(In a statement, T.N.C. noted that it “only supports qualified use of biomass for energy generation produced as a by-product of native forest restoration,” and added that all of its decisions, “including on biomass, are informed by science, and are not influenced by the business relationships of any of our independent advisors. TNC is not engaged with Enviva, and we have no partnerships or plans for partnering with them.”)
Here’s a revealing examination of the weaknesses of carbon offsets: some University of California professors studying the system’s efforts to go carbon-neutral scrutinized the offsets that it was spending millions to purchase—and discovered that it was paying landfills in low-regulation states to burn methane as it was emitted by rotting garbage. This has, at best, a modest effect on greenhouse gases, and seems a very long way from the visionary leadership one would expect from one of the world’s greatest public university systems.
Writing in The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer lays out a useful case for the proposition that renewable-energy costs have become so low that they’re now driving rapid change even in politics and economics. What he calls the “green vortex” demonstrates “how policy, technology, business, and politics can all work together, lowering the cost of zero-carbon energy, building pro-climate coalitions, and speeding up humanity’s ability to decarbonize. It has also already gotten results. The green vortex is what drove down the cost of wind and solar, what overturned Exxon’s board, and what the Biden administration is banking on in its infrastructure plan.”
Anyone who’s lived in upstate New York or Vermont knows, and generally loves, Stewart’s Shops. The chain of convenience stores, based in Saratoga County, is the Wawa of the North. But, because it derives much of its income from selling gasoline, Stewart’s Shops is objecting to legislation passed, in April, by the New York State Senate mandating that only zero-emissions cars be sold by 2035. In an excellent letter to the Albany Times Union, a New Lebanon resident named Elizabeth Poreba chides the chain for embracing “nostalgia as a business plan.” (Maybe the executives figure that, if temperatures continue to rise, sales of its renowned ice cream will, too.)
Meanwhile, climate action from the state legislature in Albany seems to have ground to a halt, as the veteran activist Pete Sikora, of New York Communities for Change, points out. “For another year, legislators slinked out of Albany after failing to take climate action,” he writes. His remedy: more activism. Victories such as New York’s ban on fracking and the divestment of its pension fund from fossil fuels were “not won in dingy backrooms,” he writes, adding that it took “handing out leaflets, holding signs as backdrops for press conferences, blocking entrances to government offices to draw attention to the issues, lobbying and calling representatives to carry the day.” (On Tuesday, Sikora predicted that, if early election returns hold and Eric Adams is New York City’s next mayor, the city’s efforts to force buildings to conserve energy may be derailed.)
Scoreboard
A new report from Clean Energy Canada finds that, if the country pushed hard for a renewable-energy switch, the new jobs created by 2030 would far outnumber those lost as fossil fuels decline.
A United Nations report found that drought has affected 1.5 billion people so far this century. According to Mami Mizutori, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, “this number will grow dramatically unless the world gets better at managing this risk and understanding its root causes and taking action to stop them.” Meanwhile, the U.N.’s eighty-five-billion-dollar pension fund has set out to decarbonize its portfolio: a forty-per-cent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from 2019 levels by 2025 is the target, with divestment from fossil-fuel stocks a key tool.
Warming Up
I have no idea who the Climate Change Jazz Fighters are—although I’m guessing from the song title “No More Petrol” that they may be European—but their album “Fridays for Future” is breezy listening on a hot summer afternoon.
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Bill McKibben is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and a contributing writer to The New Yorker. He writes The Climate Crisis, The New Yorker’s newsletter on the environment.
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