The killer heat wave currently afflicting southern Pakistan provides us with a vivid image of what the world will look like for our children and our grandchildren if we don’t take action against human-induced climate change. Of course, everyone except James Inhofe – who is unfortunately the chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works – understands that no individual weather event can be directly attributed to global warming. Senator Inhofe famously, and fatuously, brought a snowball into the Senate Chamber in an effort to refute the reality of the gradual increase in average temperature that an overwhelming majority of scientists have recognized as an impending catastrophe for our nation and humanity in general. But anyone who remembers the elementary-school distinction between weather and climate understands the scientists aren’t telling us that it will never snow again in Washington, D.C. And they can’t tell us the Pakistan’s heat wave would not have occurred if the climate wasn’t getting warmer.
What scientists are telling us is that events like the Pakistan heat wave will become more frequent and more intense if we fail to take action. It is a tragically instructive lesson. Temperatures in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city (with more people than New York) have reached 113 degrees; in the desert areas to the west, they have peaked at 120. Emergency room admissions have doubled and nearly 800 people have died, nearly all from heatstroke. People find themselves debilitated and stay indoors to hide from the blazing sun, relying on air conditioners or fans. This places excessive peak demands on the power grid, of course, and electrical outages have become common as the situation continues. When that happens, the heat invades people’s homes and they begin to die.
Heatstroke kills the weak and elderly first, but it can strike almost anyone who experiences continued exposure to temperatures above 105 degrees or so. At first, it produces fatigue, headaches, nausea, and shortness of breath. Sufferers become agitated, confused and delirious. After a while, they go into a coma and their bodies begin to shut down. Cell functions cease, organs fail, and death results. That is what is happening in Karachi. The deaths are not due to the city’s overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions or pre-existing health problems (although these certainly don’t help). They are a direct result of the heat.
In addition, the heat wave has had a devastating effect on the economy. The local government has already closed public facilities for one day, which it somewhat strangely has described as a “holiday.” Many businesses are closed as well. Tourists have obviously stopped coming to this cultural and entertainment capital (known, like New York, as the “city that never sleeps) and international business people have almost certainly stayed away as well. The streets are increasingly deserted; at temperature such as these, asphalt starts to melt.
Anyone wacky enough to ascribe the current heat wave to God’s judgment upon Moslems, as some of our evangelicals tend to do with such disasters, should know that a heat wave killed over 2,300 people in Pakistan’s arch-rival India just one month ago. Anyone smug or self-delusional enough to think that the United States is exempt from such disasters because it is not located in the tropics or because its electric power and health care systems are more reliable should remember the Chicago heat wave of July, 1995 that killed nearly 500 people. In fact, since 1975, heat waves have been by far the most lethal disasters in the United States. Although they are less dramatic than hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, they have killed more than 10 times as many people as all these other events combined.
The overwhelming majority of climate scientists in the world are telling us that the situation will inevitably get worse unless we take action. They are not telling us that there would not be any heat waves without human-induced climate change, but only that such events will become more frequent and intense. And they are not telling us that cold weather will come to an end in the United States. Snow will continue to fall, so that Senator Inhofe or his like-minded successors can still wave snowballs around as a substitute for rational thought and objective knowledge. But the snow will fall on coastal cities that have been abandoned due to repeated flooding, or that cower behind massive sea walls that deplete our nation’s wealth. It will fall on the stumps of agricultural crops that have been incinerated by the blazing summer heat, and on riverbeds that have run dry because the rains have failed or because we have drained them in desperate attempts to fill our shrinking reservoirs. It will fall on the abandoned factories, empty warehouses and dilapidated highways that result from the consequent decline in our overall economic prosperity. And it will fall on the graves of tens or hundreds of thousands of people who have died of heatstroke.