Weathering the Heat 

In the decades ahead, as temperatures rise and droughts intensify, Northern California's climate, vegetation, and wildlife may look more like Southern California does today.

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In early September, a record heatwave hit California. San Francisco set an all-time high of 106. Farther south, the temperature in San Luis Obispo hit 114 degrees, another all-time record. The event lasted several days, and six people died in the Bay Area. It was an indicator of what many believe is likely to come for California — even in coastal cities that usually serve as refuges from heat spells.

"Heatwaves like that will become worse and more frequent," said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a professor of atmospheric and climate sciences at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "It will keep getting warmer and warmer."

Of the 17 warmest years recorded, 16 have occurred this century: 2014, 2015, and 2016 each succeeded the previous year as the planet's hottest on record. Globally, 2017 is on its way to being the second hottest year; 2016 was slightly warmer but had the thermal influence of El Niño behind it. In California, the summer of 2017 was the state's warmest ever. The mercury registered triple digits a record 72 times in Redding, and Death Valley recorded 127 degrees one day in June.

Ramanathan recently published a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which he calculated that the planet faces a one-in-20 chance of "catastrophic" warming by 2100 — that is, a climate so much hotter than today's that humanity will be unable to adapt.

In fact, scientists have warned that lethal heatwaves like those seen recently in Eurasia could become almost routine in most nations of the world. In an analysis of heatwaves published in 2014 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, a team of European scientists concluded that by 2100, extreme hot spells that kill thousands of people could occur in almost any tropical or temperate region as often as every other year.

And the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report in June warning that extreme heat will kill almost 30,000 Americans every year by the 2090s — up from an annual average of 1,360 heat-related deaths from 1975 to 2010.


Some states seem to be listening to the dire warnings. California, for one, has set formal goals for curbing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990s levels by 2020 and a further 40 percent by 2030. So far, California is on track to meet the first goal, but it doesn't actually mark tremendous progress.

Air emissions peaked in 2004 at 489 million metric tons. Over the next 13 years, emissions declined only 10 percent, making the 2030 target of 250 million metric tons seem like a long shot. In fact, the state's emissions actually increased significantly between 2011 and 2012, ending a short period of rapid decline. Through 2015, California's annual emissions have remained relatively stable.

In fact, California would do well to follow other nations. France and the United Kingdom, for example, plan to ban diesel cars by 2040. China, so often lambasted as a polluter, is working on installing a carbon trading market. Its leaders also have ambitious plans for an electric vehicle fleet and have imposed aggressive targets for reducing conventional cars emissions.

By comparison, wheels of change in America are spinning as leaders remain stalled in backward dialogue that questions the significance of the planet's changing climate.

"I don't think CO2 is a pollutant," U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, recently told a Vox reporter.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has claimed in formal hearings that there has been "no significant warming whatsoever" in most of the past two decades. He used data he cherry-picked from flawed temperature recording methods that scientists have since readjusted.

President Donald Trump famously declared via Twitter that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. At a news conference on June 1, he told the American public he "cares deeply about the environment" but announced the country would withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord to avoid disrupting economic status quos.

The American fossil fuel industry couldn't be more thrilled with the current U.S. political climate, as well as the country's disinterest in the planet's future. Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry group, recently boasted that hers is "an industry that drives economic growth and sustains our way of life in the West."

Americans represent 5 percent of the global population but emit 15 percent of the planet's greenhouse gas emissions, and Reheis-Boyd's words exhibit precisely the sort of defiance and self-endowed privileges of a wealthy society that Peter Kalmus hopes to help reverse. Kalmus, an atmospheric scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who spoke on his own behalf in interviews, said he is discouraged by Americans' general complacence with current industrial and political trajectories.

"It's the tragedy of our times that climate change has become so politicized," he said. "We're talking about physics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, radiative processes."

Scientists, he noted, "aren't being listened to, and some of us are being attacked because we're trying to get the word out. We're doing our jobs and sounding an alarm, and we get called alarmists."

Even in California, where the general public and state leaders generally support progressive climate change policy, action at the individual level is often weak. For one thing, Californians may be driving more than ever before. Gridlock is at all-time highs in major urban centers — and this is not a trivial matter. Transportation accounts for almost 40 percent of the state's greenhouse gas emissions, making driving less one of the single most important actions an individual can take.

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