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“The Heat Will Kill You First”: Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell on Life and Death on a Scorched Planet

July 18, 2023

The world is in the grips of a dangerous heat wave that has sent temperatures skyrocketing to deadly levels throughout Asia, Europe and the Americas. Unless urgent action is taken to reduce carbon emissions, the United Nations says, Earth could pass a temperature threshold in the next decade when climate disasters are too extreme to adapt to. We speak with longtime climate journalist Jeff Goodell, author of the new book, The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, about how the climate crisis is raising temperatures, the toll such heat can have on the human body, and how “heat is the primary driver for this climate transformation we are undergoing right now,” fueling natural disasters such as floods, wildfires and more.

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.

We begin today’s show looking at the suffocating heat gripping three continents as the summer’s record-breaking temperatures continue to scorch large swaths of the United States, Europe and Asia.

China just saw its highest temperature in recorded history, topping 126 degrees Fahrenheit, smashing the previous record by three degrees.

In northern Syria, displaced people described the conditions at camps as akin to living in an oven, with children and the elderly facing few options for relief from 108-degree heat.

Meanwhile, a third of people in the United States faced excessive heat warnings or advisories this weekend, and Europe could record its hottest day ever this week. Italian authorities issued an extreme health risk in 16 cities as extreme heat dominated news reports worldwide.

SOFIA BETTIZA: As you can see, there are lots of tourists here in Italy. And some of them have collapsed in the last few days because of heat strokes. And that includes a British tourist who passed out in front of the Colosseum.

CHRIS LIVESAY: In Spain, thermal imaging resembles the sun, as ground temperatures reach a blistering 140 degrees. Forest fires ripped through the Spanish island of La Palma, destroying homes and displacing hundreds. More than a thousand miles away, the heat fans the flames in Croatia, as well.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD: Water temperatures off the coast of Florida are hitting some of the highest levels on record, creating a dire situation for the coral reefs.

MARISSA PARRA: So, we are in Phoenix, Arizona, talking about the scorching heat. Now, it’s not just here in Arizona, but we’re outside of Valleywise Hospital, where they’re talking about an influx in patients suffering from all kinds of heat-related illnesses. We’re talking about heat stroke. We’re talking about heat exhaustion, as well as third-degree burns.

AMY GOODMAN: The heat wave in Arizona is on track to break the previous record of 18 straight days of temperatures suppressing 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Phoenix. Extreme heat now kills more people in the United States than any other extreme weather. Some of those most at risk include people who work outdoors, as well as unhoused people.

All this comes as a U.N. climate change report found the Earth could pass a dangerous temperature threshold in the next decade that could make climate disasters so extreme, we will not be able to adapt, unless urgent action is taken to reduce carbon emissions.

For more, we’re joined by longtime climate reporter Jeff Goodell, whose new book is just out, titled The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet. He says he decided to write it after he walked for 10 blocks in Phoenix on a 115 degree Fahrenheit day and nearly passed out, making him realize he had radically underestimated the dangers of extreme heat. Jeff Goodell has covered the climate crisis for over 20 years at Rolling Stone magazine. His guest essay in The New York Times is headlined “In Texas, Dead Fish and Red-Faced Desperation Are Signs of Things to Come.”

Jeff, welcome to Democracy Now! Congratulations on your new book. It’s so important. You describe heat as a, quote, “first order threat that drives all other impacts of the climate crisis.” Explain.

JEFF GOODELL: Well, you know, we’re seeing these extreme heat events right now that you just described in your intro. It is drawing everyone’s attention. But it’s really important to grasp that as we burn fossil fuels and loading the atmosphere with CO2, we are — you know, the temperature, we’re raising the temperature of the Earth, which is driving all of these other climate impacts that you have described and that we talk about when we talk about climate change, like sea level rise, like drought, like the wildfires that have been burning in Canada. Heat is the primary driver for this climate transformation that we’re undergoing right now. It is this invisible force that is changing our world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about your experience of the heat yourself, from Phoenix to Texas. You write in your guest essay in The New York Times, “In Texas, Dead Fish and Red-Faced Desperation Are Signs of Things to Come,” “You can argue that Texas has done this to itself. The planet is getting hotter because of the burning of fossil fuels. This is a simple truth, as clear as the moon in the night sky. No state has profited more from fossil fuels than Texas.” Elaborate on this, and don’t speak in soundbites. Give us the whole meal.

JEFF GOODELL: Happily. So, I moved to Texas four or five years ago, and I had lived in the Northeast. And it was really eye-opening moving here, because Texas really is the belly of the beast when it comes to both the energy transformation and the impacts of climate change. You know, this is a state that was built around fossil fuels. There’s tremendous riches here as a result of our dependence upon fossil fuels. There’s tremendous sort of economic and cultural inertia around oil and gas in this state, and you feel it everywhere you go here.

But it’s also the state where this transformation towards clean energy is happening very quickly. We had, you know, an extreme heat dome in the last couple of weeks here. There was a lot of concern about the grid going down, and the grid was OK, and largely because of 25% of the power that was going onto the grid during this extreme heat wave was from solar power, which performs very well in hot weather and is not only more reliable, but cheaper. And so, we have these — Texas, even Texas, is making this sort of transformation to a cleaner grid.

The problem, of course, is that it’s not happening fast enough. And in Texas, you feel the changing of our climate in a very dramatic way. You know, there’s the risks of sea level rise in Houston. There’s the $30 billion “Ike Dike” that’s beginning to be constructed to protect the petrochemical industry and the Houston Shipping Channel there. There’s the heat waves that we’ve been suffering through in the last few weeks. There’s, you know, water shortages. As part of my reporting, I was in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country, and, you know, the Rio Grande is drying to a trickle there. And so, you know, there’s these cascading consequences here where you’re feeling the world changing beneath our feet, and yet the kind of politics and culture of this place are lagging far behind those changes.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff, we’ve been talking about this for — well, since it was enacted, but as the deadly heat wave grips Texas, where you are, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill eliminating mandatory water breaks for construction workers. I want to play a clip of Ana Gonzalez, the Texas AFLCIO deputy director of policy and politics.

ANA GONZALEZ: Texas is the deadliest state when it comes to construction. One worker dies every three days in our state. In fact, more workers die of heat-related illnesses in our state than any other state.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the mayor of the Petro Metro — that’s Houston — Sylvester Turner, who warned the bill would have devastating consequences for people working outdoors.

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: If House Bill 2127 is allowed to stand and it prevents municipal units of government from saying to employers that under extreme weather conditions, like heat, that you can’t be mandated to provide water breaks, then can you imagine the number of workers who are out there in the heat, the construction workers, people working on buildings, developments, you name it, that are going to face heat strokes? Some people will even possibly lose their lives because they’re operating, working in very dangerous conditions. This bill is totally insensitive. It goes contrary to the health and well-being and welfare of workers, who are out there doing — working under conditions that many, if not most, folks would dare not work under.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, that’s the Houston mayor, Turner. Jeff, he was talking about the bill, hoping it wouldn’t be passed. It has been passed and is going to soon go into effect.

JEFF GOODELL: Yeah, it is. And, you know, Mayor Turner called it “insensitive,” and I would say that’s a gross understatement. It’s barbaric. I mean, I live here. I see what it’s like working outside. I see these workers working, building, you know, the buildings going up here in Austin. Austin is a boomtown, and there’s construction everywhere. And, you know, it’s hard for me during these heat waves to walk to my mailbox to check the mail. The idea that, you know, you’re working on a rooftop or laying asphalt outside in this heat and you’re forbidden from taking water and shade breaks, I mean, it’s just like back to kind of Sinclair Lewis’s The Jungle.

I mean, I don’t know how to explain this other than to talk about a kind of — you know, there’s a kind of racism to this. You know, many of the workers here that are keeping the state going are Mexican. They’re coming across the border. They’re working incredibly — work incredibly hard. You know, it’s just a kind of politics that’s rising here in Texas that I have no kind of good moral explanation for how this can be justified in any way. And in my book, I write about the death of an agricultural worker named Sebastian Perez, not in Texas, but in Oregon, who died in the fields because he was afraid that if he took a water break and shade break, he would lose his job. And so, this kind of — this law that the governor — this legislation that the governor has signed is going to directly result in the deaths of many Texans.

AMY GOODMAN: In your new book, The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, Jeff Goodell, you write about what happens to our bodies as the heat rises above 107 degrees Fahrenheit. You say, “As the heat rises, the proteins unfold and the bonds that keep the structures together break. At the most fundamental level, your body unravels. … Your insides melt and disintegrate — you are hemorrhaging everywhere.” Take it from there, Jeff.

JEFF GOODELL: Well, that’s sort of the end. To begin, you know, our bodies are finely tuned machines that work in a very narrow temperature range. All of us understand that intuitively. If you have a temperature of 100 degrees, you know something’s going on in your body. If you have a temperature of 101 or 102, you’re calling the doctor. If you have a temperature of 105, you’re going to the hospital. We all know this in our lives. But we don’t understand the risks of that, you know, in an outdoor environment and in these kinds of extreme heat events.

What happens when your body gets hot is we only have one mechanism to cool down, and that is sweat, as we all know. When it gets hot, our heart starts pumping faster, and it’s pushing the blood away from our internal organs and away from our brains, which is one of the reasons why you get kind of dizzy or hallucinogenic or lightheaded when we are suffering from extreme heat. And as it pushes the blood away from the internal organs towards our skin to cool off through sweating, it puts an enormous strain on our heart. And so, a lot of the people who are the most vulnerable to heat are people who have heart conditions, circulatory issues, taking medications that are related to that. And your body is in this sort of desperate attempt to dissipate this heat.

And when you’re an outdoor worker and when you are in an environment that your body just can’t sweat enough, either because you’re not drinking enough water and it loses the ability to sweat, or you just simply can’t kind of dump enough heat out of your body to keep your internal body temperature from rising above 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, then the things start happening that you described, which is your — literally, the membrane of your cells begin to melt, the proteins that control the functions of those cellular structures begin to unfold, and your body kind of literally melts from the inside. And it’s a horrible way to go.

And it’s something — you know, most people who die of heat stroke don’t get that far. It’s usually a heart attack or something like that that is the cause of death. But it’s also one reason why heat mortality is dramatically underestimated in our accounting of it, because unlike a knife or a gunshot, there is no kind of heat wound when someone dies from extreme heat. So, a lot of people die of heart attacks or other circulatory problems, and they’re never diagnosed as heat deaths. So, these sort of mortality numbers that you were citing in the opening and that I cite in my book are widely understood to be grossly underestimated.

AMY GOODMAN: In your New York Times op-ed “if there is one thing we should understand about the risks of extreme heat, it is this: All living things, from humans to hummingbirds, share one simple fate. If the temperature they’re used to — what scientists sometimes call their Goldilocks Zone — rises too far, too fast, they die.” Talk about the Goldilocks Zone. And also talk about why you don’t like the term “global warming,” Jeff.

JEFF GOODELL: Yeah, the Goldilocks Zone is a phrase that scientists use when they’re — who are looking for life on other planets. What they’re looking for is planets that are not too cold, so that — what they’re looking for is liquid water. And if the planets are too cold, the water is ice. If it’s too hot, the water is vaporized, and it’s gone. So they’re looking for this sort of medium-temperature planets, this what they call the Goldilocks Zone.

And I use it in my book because all life on our planet has evolved under this relatively stable climate. Just as we are able to maintain our steady temperature in this sort of given climate zone that we’ve evolved into, so is it true with pine trees and lizards and polar bears and sharks in the ocean, and all living things have this sort of thermal range that we can deal with. And one of the profound things that’s happening as we heat up our planet is we’re moving out of that Goldilocks Zone, not just for us as humans, but for all living creatures. And so, that has profound implications in the sort of distribution of life on our planet. It means that people are going to move, animals are going to move, plants are going to move. They need to migrate to cooler places. And if they can’t migrate to cooler places, they die.

And it’s a very simple truth, and it’s one that has enormous consequences for politics. You talked in your intro about, you know, the refugees moving from various countries and the political consequences of that. We’re going to see more and more of that. We’re going to see more and more changes in disease patterns as animals carrying various microbes move into new places. You know, a simple example of this is mosquitoes, that are very sensitive to temperature, moving into hotter places, carrying diseases like dengue and Zika and malaria with them. We’re seeing this in the drying out of forests, that are causing these bigger and hotter wildfires, that are causing the smoke that has inundated the East Coast in recent weeks.

You know, changes in this sort of Goldilocks Zone are profoundly rearranging life on our planet. And that’s why heat is such an important force to understand, both in the way that it impacts our body but also in the way it impacts the sort of dynamics of life on our planet.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been shocked by how fast this has happened? And what do you think needs to happen?

JEFF GOODELL: Yeah, I think anybody who’s been watching this, covering, talking about climate, journalists like myself and scientists who have been looking at this for a long time, are both shocked and — shocked by two things: one, by how rapid the changes are that we’re seeing, given the kind of levels of CO2 that we’re at, and also by the predictability of it, in a certain way. I mean, you know, we’ve known — ExxonMobil has known — for a very long time that as we burn fossil fuels and dump CO2 into the atmosphere, the temperature of the planet is going to rise. And broadly, you know, those predictions have held — been very accurate and held true. We’ve known for decades. And the fact that we’ve done essentially nothing to stop that rise is, you know, terribly disappointing and predictable and surprising at the same time.

And what do we need to do? We need to stop burning fossil fuels, because that is what’s driving the temperature change on the planet. And we also have to think differently about the risks that we are running. We have to understand something like heat. I think of my book as a sort of survival guide for the 21st century. We have to understand the risks of extreme heat and these extreme events, what to do, how to handle it, who’s vulnerable, who’s not, how to better address that, how to democratize air conditioning, how to build cities in a different way that incorporates shade, how to address events like extreme heat for the most vulnerable communities, cooling centers, things like that.

We have not at all come close to grasping the scale and scope of the crisis we’re facing. And that is not alarmist; that is just kind of the straightforward reality of where we are.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Goodell —

JEFF GOODELL: And I’m very hopeful in —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

JEFF GOODELL: OK. I’m very hopeful that we can use this transformation to build a better and cleaner and more healthy world, but we need to really grasp what we’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Goodell’s new book is called The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet.

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Heat stroke treatment at Baton Rouge during 2016 Louisiana floods. By The National Guard – https://www.flickr.com/photos/thenationalguard/28940710682/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=121600701

Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on over 1,400 public television and radio stations worldwide. The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard honored Goodman with the 2014 I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence Lifetime Achievement Award. She is also the first journalist to receive the Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the 'Alternative Nobel Prize' for “developing an innovative model of truly independent grassroots political journalism that brings to millions of people the alternative voices that are often excluded by the mainstream media.” She is the first co-recipient of the Park Center for Independent Media’s Izzy Award, named for the great muckraking journalist I.F. Stone, and was later selected for induction into the Park Center’s I.F. Stone Hall of Fame. The Independent of Londoncalled Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! “an inspiration.”

Tags: environmental effects of climate change, heatwaves