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Deadly Heat: Record Scorching Temperatures Kill the Vulnerable, Worsen Inequality Across the Globe

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As we enter the month of June, scorching temperatures are already making deadly heat waves around the world. Data confirmed last month was the hottest May on record, putting the Earth on a 12-month streak of record-breaking temperatures. On Wednesday, the World Meteorological Organization announced there is an 80% chance the average global temperature will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels for at least one of the next five years. “We’re going to see a more chaotic planet as the climate heats up,” says Jeff Goodell, a journalist covering the climate crisis. Goodell describes “the heat wave scenario that keeps climate scientists up at night”: a major power outage that could cut off air conditioning and cause thousands of deaths from extreme temperatures.

In Mexico, it’s already so hot that howler monkeys and parrots are falling dead from the trees. “What we’re experiencing right now goes beyond what is normal,” says Ruth Cerezo-Mota, climate researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “We have been saying this for many years now.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Deadly heat. As we enter the month of June, scorching temperatures are already gripping parts of Arizona, California, Nevada, as well as countries around the world. In Arizona, extreme heat sent 11 people to the hospital as thousands waited to enter a campaign rally with Donald Trump. In India, 33 poll workers died from heatstroke on a single day last week during India’s national elections. In Mexico, it’s so hot, howler monkeys are falling dead from the trees. Data confirmed last month was the hottest May on record, putting the Earth on a 12-month streak of record-scorching and -breaking temperatures.

Meanwhile, a new report has found the rate Earth is warming hit an all-time high last year, with 92% of 2023 record heat caused by humans. On Wednesday, the World Meteorological Organization announced there’s an 80% chance the average global temperature will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels for at least one of the next five years.

On the same day that report was released, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres gave a major speech on the climate crisis right next to the dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York City. The U.N. secretary-general said the world can still meet the 1.5-degree target if governments drastically speed up the phaseout of fossil fuels.

SECRETARY-GENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES: Today is World Environment Day. It is also the day that the European Commission’s Copernicus Climate Change Service officially reports May 2024 as the hottest May in recorded history. This marks 12 straight months of the hottest months ever. For the past year, every turn of the calendar has turned up the heat. Our planet is trying to tell us something, but we don’t seem to be listening.

Dear friends, the American Museum of Natural History is the ideal place to make the point. This great museum tells the amazing story of our natural world, of the vast forces that have shaped life on Earth over billions of years. And humanity is just one small blip on the radar. But like the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, we are having an outsized impact. In the case of climate, we are not the dinosaurs. We are the meteor. We are not only in danger. We are the danger. But we are also the solution.

So, dear friends, we are at a moment of truth. The truth is, almost 10 years since the Paris Agreement was adopted, the target of limiting long-term global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is hanging by a thread. The truth is, the world is spewing emissions so fast that by 2030 a far higher temperature rise will be all but guaranteed.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in a major address on the climate crisis Wednesday to mark World Environment Day. Again, he was speaking at the Museum of Natural History here in New York.

For more on deadly heat and the climate crisis, we’re joined by two guests. Dr. Ruth Cerezo-Mota is a researcher at the Institute of Engineering at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She is joining us from the city of Mérida in the Mexican state of Yucatán. And joining us from North Carolina, Jeff Goodell. He’s covered the climate crisis for over 20 years at Rolling Stone magazine, the author of The New York Times best-seller, The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet. He’s got a new op-ed in The New York Times, “The Heat Wave Scenario That Keeps Climate Scientists Up at Night.”

What is that scenario, Jeff?

JEFF GOODELL: Well, that scenario is a look at what would happen if there were a five-day blackout during an extreme heat wave, looking at the kind of cascading consequences of these two events together. It was based on a study done by some researchers at Georgia Tech and Arizona State University. And it looked at — you know, we think of air conditioning as this sort of technofix for extreme heat. You know, often people will say to me, “What’s the problem with the planet heating up? We’ve just got to get more people air conditioning.” And this study really looked at the sort of false illusion of security that air conditioning has kind of provided for us.

It showed that in this blackout scenario where you had a total blackout for two days and then three days of restoring power, which is not kind of beyond the pale of kind of reality at all — we had a five-day blackout similar to that in Texas a few years ago. In that kind of a scenario in a city like Phoenix, where there’s virtually 100% penetration of air conditioning, you would have 800,000 emergency room visits and more than 13,000 deaths within 48 hours, which is hugely shocking and sort of disturbing findings.

And what’s interesting about this is the way that it shows that some of these — that technofixes, like air-conditioning and things, which are certainly important tools for living in hot climates, but they also amplify our vulnerability in ways that we don’t really understand or are not aware of. And so, air conditioning is sort of like this sort of sword of Damocles hanging over a city like Phoenix or a city like Austin or Houston or places like that, that are completely dependent upon it. And it just shows this sort of — our understanding of our vulnerability to extreme heat is far more complicated than we understand at first glance.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s amazing, this report. In Phoenix, about 800,000 people, roughly half the population, would need emergency medical treatment for heatstroke and other illnesses. The flood of people seeking care would overwhelm the city’s hospitals. More than 13,000 people would die. That’s in Phoenix. And, of course, that’s a place that 99% of the buildings are air-conditioned. Then you go to a place like Detroit, that’s even older, much less AC, and the number of people that would be affected, especially older people. And, of course, AC causes more global warming. I was really struck in your piece by what you called not a Hurricane Katrina, but a “heat Katrina.”

JEFF GOODELL: Yeah, exactly. And in comparing — in this study, in comparing the three cities, the other — in Atlanta and Detroit and Phoenix, the emergency room visits and death rate as a consequence of this five-day blackout that I described are far lower in these other cities because of less dependence upon air conditioning. So, in some ways, one of our sort of favorite technofixes for a hotter world, air conditioning, is increasing our vulnerability to that extreme heat. We’re building buildings that don’t have natural ventilation, that you can’t open windows in. So, when the power goes out, they become like convection ovens, and people die.

And, you know, there are a lot of things that we can do to reduce this vulnerability, things like solar panels on rooftops, microgrids, battery backups, so we’re not so dependent upon the grid itself, and also building buildings that have passive cooling, that don’t require air conditioning, that have natural ventilations, that are built in ways that are suitable for the hotter world that we’re building for ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, most of the rest of the world doesn’t have that kind of access to air conditioning. I want to go down to the Yucatán, where our next guest is, Ruth Cerezo-Mota. We just read this report about howler monkeys falling dead out of trees. If you can go from monkeys to human beings and what it means for Mexico right now, which is also — and Yucatán experienced a major heat wave, and yet at the same time you’ve just elected your first woman president in Mexico, Claudia Sheinbaum, who is a climate scientist, like yourself. In Mexico, nearly 61 people died from a record heat wave that just ended. Can you talk about all of this?

RUTH CEREZO-MOTA: Yeah. Hi. Yeah, we are experiencing really extreme weather. And I just want to complement something that you were saying about the air conditioner. Yeah, we need to consider that we — it’s also an unfair situation, because there is many people that will not be able to afford an air conditioning, so it’s not really a solution, either. But in any case, yes, people is dying here because of the heat. Animals — there was this report of hundreds of monkeys falling just from trees. And before that, the week before that, there were parrots, as well. And, of course, here in Yucatán, most of the city has air conditioning, but not all the small towns. So, yeah, it’s a big problem.

And yeah, on a very hot Sunday, last Sunday, we had elections, and there was massive participation, and we got our first president. But I don’t think it means good news in terms of environment, at least not now. When she was a mayor in Mexico City, there was a couple of things that she did that clearly was against or was not eco-friendly, like, for example, she built a bridge for cars, and in order to do that, they destroyed part of a wetland that it was of the very last natural reserves in Mexico City, which — and it turns out, it didn’t solve the problems. It didn’t solve the traffic that was supposed to be the problem. And because it was done over the wetlands, when it’s the rainy season, it gets flooded. So, then, you have — now you have floodings. You destroyed part of the environment, of the reserve, and you didn’t solve the issue that was the traffic in that area.

Also, while she was in campaign, she promises to continue what López Obrador is doing. She’s talking about the Tren Maya, that we know it has several impacts on the environment. There has been deforestation of at least 10 million trees. They have polluted the water. They have injected concrete on waterholes. And we are here in the peninsula. We don’t have surface body — water surface bodies. We all depend on underground water. And now that water is polluted by concrete and metals that they have been injecting to build the railroad.

So, definitely, in terms of environment, at least now, it’s not a good news. So, maybe once that Claudia start her period, maybe she distance herself from López Obrador and all these programs that go against the environment.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go —

RUTH CEREZO-MOTA: But so far, it’s not a clear evidence of that.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip, the heat wave also killing those 150 howler monkeys found dead on the forest floor, according to Mexico’s Environment Ministry, due to heatstroke, dehydration, malnutrition or the spraying of crops with toxic agrochemicals. This is Mexican biologist Gilberto Pozo in the Mexican state of Tabasco.

GILBERTO POZO: [translated] We have registered 83 dead specimens. There are also orphaned calves, because many adults, adult females, have died. Some offspring have managed to survive. That is the problem with this species’ mortality in this very hot season in the state. The temperatures have reached 123 degrees Fahrenheit. And the wildlife is suffering because of the lack of water. There has been a lot of habitat degradation, so there is more light penetration, higher temperatures and water scarcity. Above all, there has been an increase in the number of fires, that damage the few habitats or refuges for these species.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Ruth Cerezo-Mota, would you like to elaborate on that, the flora, the fauna, and how all life is affected?

RUTH CEREZO-MOTA: Yeah, definitely, these extreme events that are becoming more frequent and more intense. And we knew that before. We knew that. We have already observations all around the world in different regions that these extreme events will become more often and more frequent and more intense when they happen, and not only the heat wave, but floodings and extreme precipitation. So, we knew all this, and we have been saying this for many, many years now.

So, it takes a toll on everything. So it affects health. It affects biodiversity. It affects — at the same time that we experience a heat wave, we also experience a very dry season. We are coming from last year, as well. It was very low levels of precipitation that we have here in the country, partially because of El Niño, but partially because of this climate change. So, there is no water. We have experienced, as well, not only Mexico, but in very — in other parts of the world, fires. We are getting these compound events in which you have all the perfect conditions for fires, for events that wouldn’t happen otherwise. So, we have a dry environment, windy and a lot of organic material, so then you have the perfect conditions to start the fires. And because it’s so hot and because there’s so little water, it’s very hard to control those fires, so there’s a massive devastation. Plus, the animals there are dying, because they are not able to adapt to this heat that we are experiencing. It’s not normal.

So, even though here, the peninsula of Yucatán, normally we experience a hot weather, what we are experiencing right now goes beyond of what is normal. So, we are — plus, it has lasted for more than one month, where we have had these conditions of 45 maximum degrees centigrade, and the minimums of 38, 35, so really not — that minimum is not healthy anymore, not for humans, not for environment. And it doesn’t seem to — that it’s going to end soon. So, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to end with Jeff Goodell. If you could comment on climate refugees, as President Biden tries to shut down the border, the U.S.-Mexico border, limit the number of people who can come, the reasons people leave their countries, and what they’re affected by, and also the laws that prevent people, like in Texas, the attempt to stop people from even getting — workers getting water breaks?

JEFF GOODELL: Yeah. Well, one of the, you know, kind of rules of life is that when conditions get too intolerable — too hot, in this case — living things move on to find more suitable climates. That’s what humans do. That’s what, you know, plants do. That’s what animals do. We all have to, in order to survive, find our kind of what I call in my book our Goldilocks zone, where it’s not too hot, not too cold.

And, you know, what happens when it gets too hot, crops fail, water resources fail, people move on. And that is what’s happening at the U.S. border. Migration is a very complex topic. There’s lots of reasons why people are on the move. But certainly, climate change and crop failure and water scarcity is a big part of that.

And so, we’re going to see a more chaotic planet as the climate heats up. In my book, I call heat the engine of planetary chaos. And that’s what we’re talking about here. So we’re going to see more people trying to move across boundaries. We’re going to see more politics driven by that kind of resistance to migration. We’re seeing it in the United States right now. We’re seeing it in Europe. We will see more and more of that.

And in states like Texas, where I live, we have a governor who’s a hard-right MAGA Republican, who has decided that — you know, he has passed legislation or signed legislation that prohibits any city or municipality in the state from passing any laws that require shade breaks or water breaks for workers during extreme heat conditions. The politics of this are perverse. They are brutal. They are barbaric. But that is the way our world is moving. You know, the idea that Governor Abbott has is a loss of productivity by giving people shade breaks, but it’s really going back to the old kind of coal mining days where, you know, productivity is elevated above human life.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to continue to talk about this, of course, as we move into these incredibly hot summer months. And even those who have access to shade are determined by their wealth, particularly thinking of the unhoused population. Jeff Goodell, we want to thank you so much for being with us, New York Times piece, we’ll link to, that you just wrote, “The Heat Wave Scenario That Keeps Climate Scientists Up at Night,” author of The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet. And we want to thank Dr. Ruth Cerezo-Mota, climate scientist from the Institute of Engineering at National Autonomous University of Mexico, today speaking to us from Yucatán.

When we come back, Black women’s voices, the focus of a project from V-Day, the global activist movement to end violence against all women, gender-expansive people, girls and the Earth. It’s called VOICES: a sacred sisterscape. Back in 20 seconds.

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