An egg frying on the earth.

Jeff Goodell
Heat: Life and death on a scorched planet

Jeff Goodell wrote his latest book before the European heatwave. The remarkable weather since then – multiple 40-degree days across Spain, France, Greece, Croatia and Italy – entirely confirms his thesis.

On an evolutionary basis, heat management preoccupies all creatures. The development of sweat glands, for instance, allowed humans to prosper as all-weather hunters. Yet, perspiration or no perspiration, once our internal systems reach 40.5 degrees, we die: quickly and horribly.

That’s a problem, given Earth’s now warmer than at any time in the past 125,000 years. Each second, the seas now absorb excess heat equivalent to what three nuclear bombs would release, a process that’s reshaping the marine environment. Giant kelp once covered nine million square metres off the coast of Tasmania. Today, that seaweed forest – a wonder of the underwater world – barely extends 500,000 metres. Other forms of marine life can no longer tolerate waters in which they previously flourished, with species such as longfin squid and black sea bass migrating into oceans where they once would never survived.

On land, too, heat generates movement. Goodell quotes a study of 4000 animals that shows the distribution patterns of most species shifting about 20 kilometres each decade. Viruses and ticks migrate with them, a phenomenon almost guaranteed to mean devastating pandemics.

Goodell also talks of huge flows of climate refugees, “a vast remapping of the world’s population”. Despite the heat, not everyone can get out of the proverbial kitchen. Paris’s distinctive zinc roofs make the city entirely unsuited for current temperatures; in Chennai, India, developers have paved over more than 80 per cent of the once-cooling wetlands, leaving millions of slum dwellers stuck in a permanent heat sink.

Goodell travels to Phoenix, Arizona, where an elderly woman died from heat exposure in 2018 as she could no longer afford airconditioning. The city’s utility companies now provide the poor with card readers into which they can feed their money, dollar by dollar. Of course, as aircon becomes a necessity, its ubiquity pumps more carbon into the atmosphere, thus contributing to the rising temperature.

Structurally, Heat relies on the “little thing-big thing” narrative beloved by those pop science authors who present a seemingly trivial factor as key to absolutely everything (“the MacGuffin that changed the world”). Yet the undeniable significance of global warming – the biggest thing of all – gives Goodell’s work genuine power.

Read this book and then look at the temperatures in the northern hemisphere. That’s the Anthropocene: so hot, it’s chilling. 

Black Inc, 384pp, $37.99
Black Inc is a Schwartz company

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2023 as "Heat: Life and death on a scorched planet".

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