Photo: Highway in Oregon engulfed by wildfire. Credit — Oregon Department of Transportation
Scorching heat returned to large parts of the western United States in recent days as people and vital infrastructure struggle to cope with this latest manifestation of the climate crisis. Arguably the hottest temperature ever recorded was registered in Death Valley, California on Sunday — 130 degrees. The temperature in Las Vegas, Nevada, also hit its record high and Sacramento, California, was one degree short of the city’s record.
In total, areas that were placed under a heat advisory or excessive heat warning are home to 31 million people. Poor and oppressed people, like homeless people or low-wage workers who work outdoors, are the most exposed to serious health problems or death amid these blistering temperatures.
The heat wave is also contributing to the massive wildfires raging in the West. These are particularly severe along the border between California and Nevada, and in Oregon. The Oregon fire — known as the Bootleg Fire — has expanded to encompass a 224 square-mile area. People are being forced to flee their homes and electrical systems are being damaged and strained to their limit.
Back-to-back heat waves
Last weekend’s scorching temperatures across the west followed another deadly heat wave the previous month. Temperatures in the Pacific Northwest surged 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit above the June average two weeks ago, causing death and destruction across the region.
At least 33 all time record high temperatures were recorded in the United States, exceeded only by a record breaking 121 degrees recorded in the Canadian town of Lytton. June temperatures in the Pacific Northwest are typically in the mid 70s due to the cool jet stream from the Pacific Ocean. The recent extreme temperatures were caused by what scientists call a “heat dome,” an extremely rare phenomenon for this region. A heat dome is formed when warm air is trapped underneath the jet stream and not able to escape. Extreme weather events will likely become more common as climate change causes the jet stream to become less predictable.
In the Pacific Northwest, this heatwave was compounded by drought. Typically, heat from the sun’s rays causes moisture in soil to evaporate, which cools the surrounding area. Right now, that isn’t happening. Soils are extremely dry, which will likely lead to intense wildfires across the western U.S. and Canada.
Concurrently, the northeastern United States was also experiencing its own heatwave. Temperatures in Boston and Hartford reached 99 degrees, record breaking for June. New York City declared a heat advisory warning as residents were instructed to turn off their air conditioners to preserve the city’s power grid. “Here’s the message to all New Yorkers: immediately, immediately reduce the use of electricity in your home or in your business,” said mayor Bill de Blasio. “We need to ensure that our electric supply is protected. We need to avoid any possible disruptions.” Despite this, Times Square billboards, which use 161 megawatts daily, stayed lit.
The Pacific Northwest heatwave has already claimed at least one hundred lives. Among them, a 38 year old agricultural worker who died on the job despite Oregon declaring a state of emergency. In Washington state, farms were scrambling to harvest cherries and other berries before they shrivel and bruise in the heat. “Workers may become dehydrated and suffer heat exhaustion or heat stroke as the temperatures climb,” said Elizabeth Strater, the United Farm Workers union’s director of strategic campaigns. “… It’s really about fruit more than people.”
U.S. government unwilling to truly tackle climate change
Critical infrastructure was not designed to withstand these extreme weather events. Just a few months after the historic cold snap which decimated much of Texas’s power grid, officials have requested residents limit their energy consumption amid record high temperatures. Asphalt streets in Oregon and Washington, some laid 70 years ago, are buckling and cracking under the unprecedented temperatures, causing road closures. The heat has literally melted through power cables in Portland’s streetcar networks, cancelling service for several days. In Seattle, fewer than half of homes and buildings are equipped with air conditioning.
Across the country, the heat is disproportionately affecting the elderly, young and poor. Temperatures in cities are often inversely correlated with income. Fewer trees in neighborhoods leave asphalt and dark buildings exposed to the sun’s intense rays. As a result, poorer neighborhoods without shade tend to be, on average, warmer. The homeless population, already suffering so much from the COVID-19 pandemic, are especially vulnerable. Due to the pandemic, public libraries and other areas which have historically served as centers for people to cool off are running at much lower capacity.
It is an undeniable fact that climate change, from record breaking frost in Texas to record breaking heat in the Northwest, is caused by capitalism’s insatiable drive for profit. ExxonMobil was aware of the linkage between fossil fuels and climate change in the 1970s. Fossil fuel companies have spent millions of dollars to outwardly lie about the effects of burning fuels in fear that they would not be profitable if the world understood the risks of their products. Today, fossil fuel companies are fighting to stay relevant with greenwashing campaigns like “clean coal.”
Trillions of dollars have been spent defending the oil industry abroad. In a brutally honest statement, Vice President Kamala Harris even admitted, “For years there were wars fought over oil; in a short time there will be wars fought over water.”
In recent days, Joe Biden has recognized the extreme heat waves across the country are the result of climate change. But recognition means nothing without concrete and decisive action. Instead of empty remarks, we need to eliminate the fossil fuel industry and the military-industrial complex while guaranteeing that no workers lose their job or income. We need to end the overproduction of goods and the deadly conditions endured by those who produce them. We need to invest in renewable energy and infrastructure. Above all, we need a new system that values the environment and the people over profit.