Thinking About Heat Waves

I grew up without air conditioning in a small town outside of Houston. We finally got a couple of window units when I was 13, after my great-uncle died and left us a little money.

That made it easier to sleep in the summer, but I still spent a lot of my time in the room we called the den, which wasn’t air-conditioned, sitting in a large easy chair with a fan blowing directly on me. It was my favorite place to read and I read a lot.

Of course, we also had an attic fan, which circulated the air through a lot of the house. I’ll also point out that you don’t move much when you read and that we had plenty of water. A quick shower, a cold drink, and staying out of the sun will keep you going for a long time on a really hot day.

I could say this was all before climate change, but, of course, the climate change we’re experiencing now goes back to the industrial revolution. But while summers in the area where Houston is now have been hot and humid for millennia – long before European colonization – we are now reaching a point where they’ll get just enough worse to make life much harder for everyone.

In our modern world, air conditioning is a necessity. Houston may have become a large city before air conditioning was universal – ports and oil will do that – but it didn’t become the headquarters of so many major corporations until that happened.

Still, it’s useful to point out that in places that have always had hot, humid summers, people figured out how to survive and thrive before air conditioning. Some of that came from building with the weather in mind, some from knowing it was going to happen and being prepared.

Those who live in places that get serious winter will tell you the same thing about winter.

There is a point where those things don’t do enough. We’re going to get heat waves that kill people who do everything right.

The recent heat wave in India is not that far off from the horrific one Stan Robinson uses at the start of The Ministry for the Future. I suspect we don’t have an accurate count for how many died in the recent one, because we never do in heat waves, but I’m sure many people died. Heat waves are, in fact, the deadliest of so-called “natural” disasters, but we tend to forget that.

India needs — and needs now — not just air conditioning, but access to water in a way that doesn’t currently exist.

It’s not the only country that needs that and air conditioning and water aren’t the only key elements. In the United States we have states passing laws that prohibit requiring employers to give outdoor workers water breaks – that is, it’s not that they don’t require such breaks, but that no city or county can adopt a law requiring them. This includes Texas, where such a law would be obscene in a normal summer, much less in a climate change one.

In a well-run society, such laws would be blatantly unconstitutional. What they should be doing instead is passing laws requiring employers to provide many breaks and landlords to provide air conditioning, just as they’re required to provide heat. But apparently cruelty really is the point.

We do have to work with what people who live in harsh climates have learned over the years, because we’re not going to get the best tools. It would be hard even if we actually tried to do it, but it’s pretty clear that many powerful people are going to resist such efforts, which is going to make it that much harder.

Having grown up in a hot, humid climate, I do know how to keep myself reasonably safe during a heat wave. Of course, where I live, serious heat waves – like serious winter – are rare occurrences. We think it’s hot around here when it hits the 80s (F), just as we think it’s freezing when it gets below 50F, much less 40!

Yes, we are spoiled, but even here we need to pay attention. Climate change is coming for us all.

Air conditioning isn’t all that common around here. I recall being in San Francisco on a day when it hit 105 F and discovering that the restaurants and shops weren’t air conditioned, something that you would never see in Houston or Washington, D.C., for that matter.

It gets hot here, you open the windows, and mostly that works. But a few years ago, we saw the sky turn orange from fires. Couple smoke with even a mild heat wave and you won’t be able to open the windows.

At our apartment, we have a heat pump now, which gives us heat when we need it in winter and AC for those bad air hot days. We don’t use it much, but it’s available.

I’m an advocate for using as little of those tools as you can – but using them when you need to.

The main thing is that you have to pay attention to both weather and climate. We will never get to forget about it.

It’s not an individual problem, but we have far too many examples of having problems we didn’t cause dumped on us individually. We need collective solutions to end up keeping our planet healthy for people, but that’s going to take a lot of work.

Still, it really is easier to keep the Earth livable than to move to Mars. Remember that just as you remember to get out of the sun and hydrate.

One thought on “Thinking About Heat Waves

  1. When we lived in NY we were on the eighth floor of our building, and fortunate to have windows on three sides (okay, one side looked on an airshaft, but there were still windows to the outside). We put in ceiling fans and barring maybe one week a year, when it was hot we opened all the windows and turned the fans on high and everyone slept reasonably comfortably. But that was twenty years ago. I’m not sure it would work now.

    Which reminds me: I need to start making some climate change necklaces again.

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