The Climate Change-Heat Wave Connection


In almost every state Americans are experiencing some of the hottest days on record this summer, with over 2,000 of those records shattered in July alone. Sweltering under a “heat dome” of high pressure that has covered much of the U.S., many cities are seeing temperatures that haven’t been hit in over a century. The spikes in temperature have been the spearhead of major economic and health issues across the country as well, from dangerously low amounts of available freshwater in Texas to athletes suffering heat stroke on high school football fields, to skyrocketing energy usage.

This summer’s heat may also be direct evidence of changing climate trends scientists have long been expecting. A 2004 study in the journal Nature showed that, while there is no specific weather event that can be attributed to climate change with absolute certainty, greenhouse gas emissions doubled the likelihood of the infamous 2003 heat wave that killed tens of thousands in Europe. If this pollution continues, that kind of summer may be occurring every other year by 2040. Deadly heat waves and other heat-related events, such as droughts and more extreme weather, will very likely plague North America as well. This spring, in fact, was “the most extreme…on record,” as Dr. Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground, told ABC News during their coverage of tornadoes and droughts that brought destruction to many American communities and caused hysteria in the media.

Studies released this year support these conclusions, with one conducted by scientists at Stanford University published in the July issue of the journal Climate Change predicting summer temperatures in the U.S. will increase irreversibly within the next 20 to 60 years. The same study finds that, as the globe warms, the coolest summers of the coming decades will be hotter than the warmest of the last half century.

Data like this begs many questions about not only how humanity can reduce our emissions of carbon and other greenhouse pollutants, but also how our infrastructure and lifestyles can be altered to reflect increased risk of dangerously high temperatures and extreme weather and climate events—which also tend to disproportionately affect the elderly, the poor and the homeless. These are issues that must be tackled at local and international levels utilizing public and private resources to produce results.

Still, there is little national discussion regarding the impact of climate change on steadily rising temperatures, proof of how many barriers to addressing, or even acknowledging, the global crisis of temperature rise still exist. While the past several weeks have been dominated by coverage of a barely averted debt crisis, the few tidbits of information about record-breaking heat that got through have been attacked by pundits and commentators. Radio host Rush Limbaugh stated that the heat index data released by the NOAA—the measurement of the combination of heat and humidity that has resulted in health risks for many thousands this summer—was a government and/or liberal hoax, and dismissed reports of broken records by claiming that “it does this every year.” The media watchdog group Media Matters reported on July 26 that similar misinformation was being circulated in a Newsbusters post by Noel Sheppard, who misread NOAA data and insisted few records were actually broken; this story was then picked up by Fox Nation.

Meanwhile, as the media debates what has already been determined by climatologists through scientific study, more heat records will be broken and millions of people will face increasing health risks as a result.