PD Editorial: Last week’s American heat wave was just a taste of what’s to come

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Remember when scientists and journalists used to talk about “global warming” not “climate change”? The latter is more accurate and better encompasses the nuances of the science, but if a recent report is correct, Americans might as well just go with the former.

Researchers at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonpartisan group focused on bringing science to bear on global challenges, studied the data and concluded that the United States is in for much hotter weather in coming decades.

The eastern half of the country got a preview last week. Temperatures skyrocketed into the 90s and even 100s in many states and the nation’s capital. Police asked criminals to take a few days off because it was too hot for crime and crimefighting.

No single heat wave is directly attributable to climate change, but the trends are clear based on well-established scientific techniques.

According to the report’s findings, if the world does nothing to curb greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, communities all across the United States will experience more hot days in an average year.

That includes this corner of California. In Sonoma County, the historic average July and August daytime high temperature is 82 degrees, and the heat index exceeds 90 degrees only about nine days per year. The heat index is a measure of how hot it feels outside based on air temperature and relative humidity. Simply, higher relative humidity makes it feel hotter outside.

A heat index of 90 degrees is important because above that, outdoor activities start to have serious health risks such as heat stroke and dehydration. At 90 degrees, workers need to be careful. Above 100 degrees, children, elderly adults and pregnant women are at risk. And if the heat index surpasses 105 degrees, everyone doing any sort of physical activity outside is at risk. Even death is possible if one isn’t careful.

By midcentury, even under the most aggressive global actions to reduce heat-trapping emissions, Sonoma County will have about 25 days per year with a heat index greater than 90 degrees, and two of those will be greater than 100 degrees.

We almost certainly will not land in that best-case scenario. National Republicans have demonstrated only disdain for reducing emissions, and even progressives are slow to act. In Oregon this year, where Democrats hold supermajorities in their legislature, they couldn’t even pass a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system like California’s.

All of which means we’d better be prepared for far worse, like 63 days with a heat index of 90 degrees in Sonoma County, 14 of them above 100, and five above 105, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report. And we’ll hardly get the worst of it. Other parts of the country could be in extreme heat for many months.

That will fundamentally change how we live. Homes and businesses will consume more energy to stay cool. The crops we grow and wildlife we see might no longer thrive in the region. They might no longer thrive anywhere in the continental United States.

California has taken a lead on fighting climate change more than any other state, but our leadership will only matter if the rest of the country follows. Reducing greenhouse gases here helps, but the coming changes are global, and this state will suffer for everyone else’s inaction unless something changes.

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