The New York Times

Extreme Heat Will Change Us


Extreme Heat Will Change Us_1Half the world could soon face dangerous heat. We measured the daily toll it is already taking. When it’s this hot, laborers start work in the middle of the night. The heat of the day can give you a fever. Even play is impossible when a merry-go-round can sear the skin. We visited two cities already transformed by climate change — Kuwait City and Basra, Iraq — to document what billions may experience as human emissions warm the planet.


How heat damages our body

ON A TREELESS STREET under a blazing sun, Abbas Abdul Karim, a welder with 25 years experience, labors over a metal bench. Everyone who lives in Basra, Iraq, reckons with intense heat, but for Abbas it is unrelenting. He must do his work during daylight hours to see the iron he deftly bends into swirls for stair railings or welds into door frames. The heat is so grueling that he never gets used to it. “I feel it burning into my eyes,” he says. Working outside in southern Iraq’s scalding summer temperatures isn’t just arduous. It can cause long-term damage to the body. We know the risk for Abbas, because we measured it.

The New York Times: Extreme Heat Will Change Us_2By late morning, the air around Abbas reached a heat index of 125°F (52°C), a measure of heat and humidity. That created a high risk for heat stroke — especially  with his heavy clothing and the direct sun. Thermal images show additional heat coming off his equipment, making his workspace even more dangerous. The body’s struggle to sweat and cool itself can cause dehydration and put extra pressure on the kidneys. Over time, this increases the risk of kidney stones and kidney disease. The heart works harder, too, laboring to pump more blood to the skin and carry heat out of the body. As Abbas worked, our monitor found that his pulse rose, indicating to experts that his body temperature had risen by about three degrees, which puts dangerously high stress on the heart. The blood reaching Abbas’s brain was probably reduced for about an hour, as the blood flow was needed elsewhere. He felt unsteady and had to stop. “It feels like the heat is coming out of my head,” he said.

At these extreme temperatures, normal life is impossible. Ordinary activities can turn dangerous. Work slows. Tempers flare. Power grids fail. Hospitals fill up. Yet what Abbas was experiencing wasn’t a heatwave. It was just an average August day in Basra, a city on the leading edge of climate change — and a glimpse of the future for much of the planet as human carbon emissions warp the climate. By 2050, nearly half the world may live in areas that have dangerous levels of heat for at least a month, including Miami, Lagos and Shanghai, according to projections by researchers at Harvard University and the University of Washington. Just how bad it gets will depend on how much humanity curbs climate change. But some of the far-reaching effects of extreme heat are already inevitable, and they will levy a huge tax on entire societies — their economies, health and way of life. While people in hot climates can build up tolerance to heat as their bodies become more efficient at staying cool, that can protect them only so much. As we tracked the daily activities of people in Basra and Kuwait City, we documented their heat exposure and how it had transformed their lives. What we saw laid bare the tremendous gap between those who have the means to protect themselves and those who do not. We also saw a still more unsettling reality: No one can escape debilitating heat entirely.

BASRA, IRAQ’S THIRD-LARGEST CITY, has always been hot. But in the last few decades, Persian Gulf countries have warmed almost twice as fast as the global average, and more than many other parts of the world. The highest heat index recorded last summer was about 5°F higher than the peak value between 1979 and 1998, researchers at Harvard University estimate. Now, the worst months of the summer are nearly unlivable. One evening in August, a man rushed into the emergency room of a city hospital carrying his 8-year-old nephew, Mehdi, a diabetic who had collapsed in the street while playing in the heat.

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The boy was barely conscious. The doctor suspected severe dehydration and diabetic shock. Mehdi was given an IV, but a blood test showed that his glucose level was almost four times normal for a child of his age and weight, a common effect of extreme heat on diabetics. Within an hour of getting fluids and insulin, Mehdi was half-conscious and appeared stable. But for diabetics, even one severe episode like this can increase the probability of long-term cognitive deficits.  

Other families crowded into the waiting area with loved ones suffering from heat-related ailments. Some had painful bites and stings from snakes and scorpions that had crawled into their houses — or even their shoes — to escape the heat. Others, like this woman, arrived writhing from kidney stones. Chronic dehydration allows the stones to form more easily, a problem made worse by the high levels of salt in Basra’s drinking water. With the heat disorienting laborers, work accidents were also common, including broken bones, cuts and burns sustained when workers fell from scaffolding or mishandled their tools. As the crowd grew, relatives of the sick and injured shouted, threatened, pushed and begged the policeman at the door to let them see a doctor. By the time the doctor in charge went home at 2 a.m., the emergency ward had treated about 200 patients just on his shift, nearly all of them affected by the heat.


How Heat Distorts Daily Life

NOT LONG AFTER the emergency room doctor finished his shift, the heat roused Kadhim Fadhil Enad from sleep. His family’s air-conditioner had stopped, and he found himself sweating in the dark. High temperatures would govern the rest of his day. For him and many others in his city, the growing heat has turned workdays and sleep schedules upside down. When Kadhim, 25, and his brother, Rahda, left for work just after 4 a.m., the air outside was a steam bath, so hot and humid that it felt like 114 degrees. Kadhim and Radha work in construction as day laborers. In the sweltering summers of southern Iraq, that means racing to finish as much as possible before the sun comes up and ushers in the harshest heat of the day.

They began work amid laundry hanging limp on nearby balconies, unable to dry in the humid air. Once the sun rose, bleaching the sky and baking the bricks around them, they barely spoke, conserving their energy for the work at hand. By 7:22 a.m., it was too hot to keep going on the roof, so they ate breakfast in the shade and switched to indoor tasks. At 9 a.m., they quit for the day.

Across Basra and the wider Gulf region, people’s lives have been reshaped by the extreme heat. Even if they can adapt their schedule, as Kadhim has, and start their job in the middle of the night, it is still so hot that exhaustion truncates the workday, reducing productivity and chipping away at earnings. At a society-wide level, it means every project takes longer to get done. And it makes doing anything else — from working a second job to going to school — doubly difficult. Sports and social life start late and end later, meaning that many whose workday begins before dawn struggle with constant sleep deprivation. The heat also wears on infrastructure, leading to power outages and contaminated water. People get sick. Emergency rooms fill up. It is not just countries in the Gulf. Extreme heat is altering life across the globe, including in Pakistan, India, Tunisia, Mexico, central China and elsewhere. And the more temperatures rise, the greater the number of workers who will be affected. Already, the effects of extreme heat add up to hundreds of billions of dollars in lost work each year worldwide. To survive the heat, Basra residents try to adapt.

Extreme Heat Will Change Us_4Most residents have limited electricity and low incomes, so to stay cool, they douse their faces or clothes with water and hide in the shade during the day’s hottest hours. Refrigerated trucks sell chilled watermelon, since fruit from the outdoor markets is warm. Families buy ice to preserve food, as the heat can cause power outages. But for many people, there is no escape.

The day before, these garbage collectors said, three of their coworkers fainted, and one went to the hospital. All were dehydrated. One told us he had a headache. Another was dizzy. All three moved as if in slow-motion. Kadhim returned home around 9 a.m. exhausted and eager to rest in his family’s air-conditioned living room. But as he cooled down, the women in his family began the hottest part of their day. In the kitchen, his mother, Zainab, cooked a giant pot of chicken and rice for a religious holiday. The room had neither air-conditioning nor a fan, but she and her daughters-in-law still wore traditional long black dresses that kept the heat in. The gas flame and the steam from the pot turned the kitchen into a sauna. Zainab cooked in extremely dangerous temperatures — a heat index above 125 degrees — for more than an hour. Her risk of heat stroke was severe. But Zainab felt obliged to keep cooking for the festival. “I told my family I did not want to do the cooking this year,” she said. “But they insisted.”

Extreme Heat Will Change Us_6III. INEQUALITY

Money Can’t Save You

IT WAS 5:30 A.M. IN KUWAIT CITY when Abdullah Husain, 36, left his apartment to walk his dogs. The sun had barely risen, but the day was already so sweltering and the air so laden with vapor that it coated his body in a hot film, sticking his clothes to his skin. In the summer, he said, he has to get the dogs out early, before the asphalt gets so hot that it will burn their paws. “Everything after sunrise is hell,” he said. Abdullah, an assistant professor of environmental sciences at Kuwait University, lives a very different life from Kadhim in Basra. But both men’s days are shaped by inexorable heat. Basra and Kuwait City lie only 80 miles apart and usually have the same weather, with summertime temperatures climbing into the triple digits for weeks on end. But in other ways, they are worlds apart. Both places produce oil, but in Kuwait it has produced great wealth and provided citizens with a high standard of living.

This vast economic gap is never clearer than when it comes to how well people can protect themselves from the heat, a divide between rich and poor that is increasingly playing out across the globe.

Abdullah makes breakfast in an apartment cooled to 68 degrees. Kadhim’s mother toils in a kitchen nearly twice that temperature. Abdullah drives to work on broad highways in an air-conditioned car. Kadhim walks to work on streets lined with swiftly rotting garbage. Abdullah teaches at a heavily air-conditioned university. Even working at night, Kadhim cannot escape his heating world. Kuwait’s tremendous oil wealth allows it to protect people from the heat — but those protections carry their own cost, crimping culture and lifestyle alike.

When the heat hits, people desert parks and outdoor dining areas. Empty soccer fields bake in the sun. Slides, swings and other playground equipment get so hot that they can burn children’s legs. One park has a track lined with water sprayers to cool off joggers. Most Kuwaitis avoid going outside at all.

According to forecasts by researchers at Harvard University, even if humans significantly reduce carbon emissions, by the year 2100, Kuwait City and Basra will experience months of heat and humidity that feel hotter than 103 degrees, far more than they have had in the last decade.

Estimates long into the future are inexact, but scientists agree that the situation will worsen — and could be catastrophic if emissions aren’t reined in. In that scenario, Miami, for instance, could experience dangerous heat for nearly half the year.

Abdullah, the professor, said most Kuwaitis don’t think about the relationship between burning fossil fuels and the heat. “People complain about it, but it is not something that registers action or a change of behavior,” he said. “They use it to tan or go to the beach, but if it is too hot, they stay home in the air-conditioning.” And since atmospheric emissions don’t respect borders, Kuwait City and Basra will continue to get hotter regardless of what they do, unless major emitters like the United States and China change course. For now, Abdullah, like many Kuwaitis, spends his day moving between air-conditioned pockets. The apartment he shares with two dogs and two cats is filled with plants that would quickly wither outside. He works out in a sleek gym with exposed piping, a juice bar and glass walls that show the desolation outside. In one direction, a lap pool with no one in it because it is too hot. In another, a grassy golf course, also empty. In yet another, an empty tennis court, baking in the sun. Abdullah spent 13 years as a student in Oregon, and thinks back on all the people spending time outside walking, fishing and enjoying nature. Kuwait, he said, is a place that is much more resistant to environmentalists. He worries that in insulating themselves from the heat, Kuwaitis have lost touch with the natural world.

“No one really cares about what is outside their door,” he said. “And when it doesn’t factor into their thought process, it doesn’t even matter. They don’t see it.” While Kuwaitis with the means can insulate themselves from the heat, their lifestyle depends on a caste system of sorts. The bulk of the work needed to keep society running is done by low-paid foreign laborers from India, Bangladesh, Egypt and elsewhere. These include gardeners, herders, plumbers, construction workers, airport baggage handlers, air-conditioner repairmen, paramedics, ice cream vendors and trash collectors.

Kuwait’s fishermen, all foreigners, spend long days at sea in the heat. So do the men who transport ice to keep the fish fresh. A bus monitor spends all day in a metal bus stop that roasts in the sun.
Extreme Heat Will Change Us_7IV. THE FUTURE

Can This Place Still Be a Home?

BEFORE ABBAS, the welder, was born in 1983, Basra was a greener, cooler city. Expansive groves of date palms softened the temperature, and canals that irrigated Basra’s gardens earned it the nickname “the Venice of the East.” Many of those stately palm groves were being cut down when Abbas was a child, so many fewer remained when Kadhim, the construction worker, was growing up in the early 2000s. But even then, the city was still dotted with tamarisks, hearty shrubs that erupted yearly with pink and white flowers. “It was a joy to see the street full of tamarisk trees and flowers,” Kadhim said. “Whenever you see green, you feel at peace.” Now, most of those are gone too. Without them, Basra has become a drab city of concrete and asphalt, which soaks up the sun and radiates heat long after sundown. Sewage and trash clog Basra’s canals, which now do little to moderate the scorching temperatures. In the future, many people around the world will migrate to escape the heat. But there will most likely be many others who, like Abbas and Kadhim, lack the resources to make it to a greener country. And richer countries that have already tightened their borders will probably make immigration even more difficult as climate pressures increase. Abbas and Kadhim both dream of living elsewhere. Abbas wants somewhere “greener,” Kadhim somewhere “cooler.” Kadhim hopes to marry and have children, and raise them somewhere that has “space for nature.” “The houses will be made of wood, and there will be a forest,” he said.


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