The heat is on…and not just along the East Coast.

Today’s big weather story? Depends upon where you live, but for most of us, it’s the heat, stagnation, and poor air quality over the eastern half of the United States. Expect temperature records to be broken up and down the Eastern seaboard. Are you elderly? A child? Asthmatic? The poor air quality may cause additional stress. Please take it easy. Rest. Stay hydrated. Stay cool.

The event unfolding is a reminder of how social causes shape heat’s impacts, and how social change alters those impacts over time. Many of us remember the Chicago heat wave of 1995. This led to some 750 heat-related deaths over a period of several days, and a lot of soul-searching about the cause and what could have been done to reduce the toll. Eric Klinenberg provided some of the best insights, in his extraordinary book Heat Wave: a social autopsy of disaster in Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2002). Klinenberg found that death rates among the elderly were linked to social factors. In active, vibrant neighborhoods where the general population was keeping track of its elderly members, death rates were relatively low. In other neighborhoods where the social fabric wasn’t so resilient, where elderly were isolated, insecure, fearing for their safety, living behind locked doors, and closed windows, and shutting off the air conditioning to keep their electrical bills low, the death rates spiked. The elderly died alone. Partly as a result, city officials were slow to realize the seriousness of the event unfolding.  Klinenberg aptly framed his study as an autopsy. Heat wave deaths usually show up only well after the fact, revealing themselves only after extensive statistical analysis of mortality.

In 1995-96, scholars were looking back even earlier, comparing contemporary events with historical precedents, such as the great heat wave of 1896, which may have killed 1500 in Chicago and New York. A century ago, the heat drew people out of their homes for two reasons. The evening streets were cooler than the sweltering indoors (no air-conditioning for folks back then!). Watching the throngs of people provided the only entertainment. At the peak of the heat wave, large numbers even slept outside. A century later, life had changed. Television drew people indoors, and fear of the streets kept them there.

Speaking of television, it’s challenged to provide compelling videos to document heat wave loss. Burnt-out lawns, children playing in sprinklers, even an ambulance or two at a hospital door are subtle, maybe not all that moving. Tornadoes, hurricanes, and flooding lend themselves to coverage that hits us at a visceral level. The denuded, post-tornadic landscape, with no vegetation or structures left standing any more than a foot or so above the terrain-level, is easy to grasp. Joplin? Tuscaloosa? These cities looked like they’d been hit by a bomb.

By contrast, heat waves leave many structures intact (apart from the occasional buckling experienced by, say, roadways or railroad tracks). In that way, they are more like the so-called neutron bombs from the Cold War. Unlike other thermonuclear weapons, which killed primarily through fallout, heat, or blast, neutron bombs were designed to kill by means of a pulse of high-energy neutrons. Structural damage, though considerable, was expected to be less extensive. Some of us living through the Cold War found this kill-the-population-leave-the-buildings-standing feature unsettling.

Those earlier heat waves occurred in July and August. This time around, it’s only June. Sometime down the road, as the planet warms, such June temperature extremes may be more commonplace (and the August temperatures something to behold!).

We’re not having as much of a national conversation about coping with those future heat waves as we might. Here’s a metaphor: think of our nation as a jet aircraft. You and I are the passengers. The leadership of the respective political parties are the pilot and co-pilot.

When it comes to climate change, roughly half of our leaders and would-be leaders find themselves constrained and/or chastised for bringing up the topic…or even entertaining it. In a similar way, we seemed poised for a first-ever national experiment (“let’s exceed our national debt ceiling and see what happens”), without having a nuanced  discussion about whether that’s an unnecessary risk.

This lack of discussion in the cockpit makes it hard to plan or react to looming threats.

The aviation community has learned from experience in this arena. Investigations of large numbers of plane crashes led the National Transportation Safety Board to realize that dysfunction in aircraft cockpits (failure to communicate, over-emphasis on cockpit hierarchy, etc.) impaired crew performance in emergencies and put the crew, passengers, and planes at unnecessary risk. The result has been the emergence of cockpit resource management or crew resource management concepts that foster situational awareness (read, climate change is underway), communications (let’s talk – not disagree violently – about it), problem solving (what are our options?), cooperation (let’s work together). The emphasis is on cognitive skills that allow gaining and maintaining situational awareness and on interpersonal skills that allow questioning of authority and the like.

Maybe we could use an NTSB for the political process.

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One Response to The heat is on…and not just along the East Coast.

  1. Thanks to alert reader John Knox, for catching an incorrect attribution of the month (August vs. July) for the 1995 Chicago heat wave in an earlier version of this post.

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