Presenter: In the hottest, best time, you're listening to Reload Radio.
Samuel Jackson: Doing the yin and the yang, the hip and the hop, the stupid fresh thing, the flippity-flop [screams]. I have today's podcast for you, hot.
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Melissa Harris-Perry: Don't worry. You're in the right place. No, Samuel Jackson is not sitting in as today's guest house, but in the clip you just heard, he was playing a radio DJ in Spike Lee's in 1989 classic Do the Right Thing. A film where the lead character is arguably the sweltering summer heat. Spike's unbearable heat is a lot like the scorching temperatures many Americans are in during this week. Seriously, take a look at the high temperatures across the country and you'll see the US map is rather than election night, 1984.
Sorry, that's a little Electoral College weather joke. This heat wave is not funny. I know for most of us, the heat is simply an irritation or inconvenience, but for many others, it's deadly. A three-day heat wave has gripped the Pacific Northwest, parts of the East Coast and Canada. The results have turned deadly.
Reporter: At least two deaths near Seattle are blamed on the record high temperatures. In Oregon, authorities say the heat may have claimed the life of a farmworker near Portland. North of the border in British Columbia, about a hundred deaths are being linked to the heat wave. Emergency responders in Vancouver are stretched thin with some people waiting hours for an ambulance.
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Melissa Harris-Perry: This heat is oppressive in every sense because some residents are far more vulnerable to the dire effects of heat. Let's go back 26 years to the summer of 1995. The City of Chicago experienced the deadliest heat wave in US history, resulting in 739 death in just one week.
Reporter 2: On July 13th of that year, the mercury rose to 106 degrees. For a week posted highs ranging from the upper 90s to the low 100s. Many began to die that the deceased were stored in refrigerated trucks on the parking lot of the Cook County morgue. The normal morgue facilities simply couldn't handle this many deaths in so short period of time.
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Melissa Harris-Perry: Sound from the PBS documentary, Chicago Tonight, on the 1995 Chicago heat wave. As you can hear, these deaths were not evenly distributed across the city's residents or neighborhoods.
Witness: The most likely to die were the elderly first and foremost, and particularly the elderly poor, and even more specifically poor elderly who lived alone.
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Melissa Harris-Perry: The elderly and poor 26 years ago, were most likely to die of Chicago's heat. The elderly and poor 16 years ago, were most likely to die when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. The elderly and poor last year, they were the most likely to die during the Texas ice storms. The elderly and poor continue to bear the brunt of the global pandemic. Heat, ice, hurricane, virus. If all of these natural disasters are claiming the same victims, maybe they aren't so natural. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. This is where we begin on The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: To help us get a better understanding of the human-created disasters, looking beneath our natural disasters is Eric Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, and of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. Eric, thanks for being here.
Eric Klinenberg: It's good to be here. Not for this reason, but good to hear your voice.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Always nice to talk with you, Eric. Because we have an embarrassment of riches today, we are also joined by Kendra Pierre-Louis, who is Senior Climate Reporter for the Gimlet Spotify podcast, How to Save a Planet. Kendra, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Kendra Pierre-Louis: Thanks so much for having me, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now I want to start with you, Kendra. Can you define for us what a heat wave is?
Kendra Pierre-Louis: In general, in the United States, a heat wave is basically considered three or more days of 90 degrees or warmer temperatures. It's just heat. It's exactly what you think it is, is several days of hot temperatures.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are they getting worse or is it just hot in summer?
Kendra Pierre-Louis: They're getting worse. Actually, one of the things that I think it-- When we look at what happened in the Pacific Northwest, when we look at what happened on the East Coast, where Boston hit 99 degrees, we very much look at these upper temperatures, a hundred and seventeen, I think, in Washington State and 99 in Boston, as I mentioned. We don't look at the lower temperatures, which is the overnight lows, and those are going up even faster than the daily highs, and those are what are catastrophic. Those are what are killing people.
The elderly, young children, people on certain medications, they're more sensitive to heat, but in general, the human body can withstand a certain amount of heat. We're built for some of this, but we need a break and we're not getting that break because it's so hot in the night. That's completely in line with climate projections, copings are warming faster than hot things. Nights are warming faster than days. Winter is warming faster than summer.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Eric, I heard a little bit of a clue there potentially, from Kendra about why it is the poor and the elderly, or at least certainly the elderly who might be most vulnerable in a heat wave. But you're the one who really has helped me think through this. Can you explain why some communities are so much more vulnerable than others?
Eric Klinenberg: Sure. That first thing is that unlike a hurricane or an earthquake, there's a very simple way for people to protect themselves, during a heat wave if the power is working and that's the turn on air conditioning, which the majority of Americans do, but it turns out not every American has access to air conditioning, and that access is patterned. We see in poor communities the air conditioning is not available.
We also now increasingly see a number of places where the power grid is unable to keep up with contemporary demands. We have both the acute crisis of poverty and isolation that puts some people at risk, and we have this emerging crisis of climate change overwhelming the capacity of our infrastructure to protect us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is this as simple as government providing low-cost air conditioning to people who don't currently have access to it?
Eric Klinenberg: In theory, if we had a reliable power grid and everyone could just turn on the air conditioning when they needed it, yes, you could reduce heat deaths. The problem, of course, is it's very difficult to do that. We're sure no political will to do that. Then the other thing is if we rely on air conditioning to get through the heat and the summers are getting hotter and hotter, I keep telling everyone what we're calling a heat wave is what our children are going to call summer.
We reach a point where we're using air conditioning all the time, that air conditioning is contributing to global warming, it's making things worse. What I have been arguing is that fundamentally, the heat wave, just shows us how much vulnerability there is out there. It highlights inequalities that we work very hard not to see all the time. When we look at who's dying and where they're dying, in heat crises, or in hurricanes, or in pandemics, we learn something fundamental about ourselves. The burning question for me is not just how we deal with climate change, but also how we protect each other.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Kendra, let's go to just that. I think this tension is such a critical one. Like, imagine we suddenly had the political will and we could just hand out window units to everyone. Everyone would have at least one room that was air-conditioned, but then these other pieces of how that could have negative effects on the climate. Just pause and walk me through this a little bit. When we're looking at these current heat waves, what are the environmental factors that are currently contributing to making them worse? And is fixing it for people going to make it even worse for the Earth?
Kendra Pierre-Louis: Yes. I feel like there are three buckets that we can put it in. One is just climate change. We are dealing with the fallout of emissions that we released into the atmosphere 10 to 20 years ago. Every day that we don't [unintelligible 00:08:52] emissions, it's going to get hotter and hotter. We're dealing with about 1.1 degree Celsius of warming. The goal under the Paris Climate Agreement is to keep it to at least 2, ideally under 1.5. Every day that we delay in acting policies to keep that to our shoulder, we're committing ourselves to an even hotter future. There's that climate change bucket that is making the present situation likely.
Then there's a broader infrastructure bucket, which is we know that cities, for example, are hotter than rural areas, just because of the amount of concrete and just hardscaping that are baked into those areas. You can also look at traditional red lighting maps to see that like communities of color are far less likely to have treats and shade cover, which provides some cooling. Then there's this third element too, which is like, it's not just air conditioning.
If you look at Seattle, which is arguably the least air-conditioned metro in the United States. 56% of Seattle residents going into this heat wave did not have air conditioning. They also are in homes that aren't well insulated because, for a long time, the Pacific Northwest didn't invest in installation. There are things that you can do, which is you can run the AC for a while. I do this actually. I run the AC for a while, and the, I turn it off at the hottest time of the day because my air conditioning unit, whoever built my building was not very thoughtful and it just [unintelligible 00:10:07] in the sun and it doesn't work very well from 12 to three.
Rather than run it, I run it in the morning, get it cool in here, turn it off during the hottest part of the day when it's not working as actively anyway. I can do that because my home is well insulated so it keeps that cool air trapped inside for a while. If you don't have any installation, the second the AC stops running, you start viewing that hot air out and you're seeing this across the country, that homes were not designed for the heat that we have. There's this other bucket where we need to think through how do we construct our homes.
It is [unintelligible 00:10:37] that they are, like if you go into the south, there are homes that are designed for new England that were constructed in the south, so without outside air conditioning, there's no way you're going to keep those homes cool. There are ways that you can actually keep the space cool, that aren't as dependent on conventional air conditioning, but we don't we're not investing in those ways of building design.
Then there's a third thing, which is; all of this has a limit. Because we still need people to pick our produce, we still need construction workers, and if the summer has continued getting this hot, and you're seeing this already in Arizona, people are going to have to shift cycles. People are going to have to start doing things at night that they used to do in the day, because it's just too hot to go outside.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As a woman who lived in a shotgun home in New Orleans, with 10-foot ceilings. I'm absolutely clear about your point about how construction can meet the needs of the climate. You make the point about what some of our workplaces are like,
it also occurs to me that we are talking about homes and having a home, or an apartment or a house as though. That is a universal experience. Eric let me come to you on this as well. I just remember so distinctly from your text Heat Wave, which I've taught every chance I get that part of the issue here also had to do with folks who were living in places that had maybe just one room, where people were actually afraid of crime on the streets. They were closing their windows instead of having them open for ventilation. How does that social infrastructure impact?
Eric Klinenberg: Well, the neighborhood environment matters. If you're in a physical place that gets very hot or if you're in a neighborhood that encourages people to hunker down at home as a survival strategy because there's a lot of crime or if there's just not a lot of places to go that are social and protective. People get isolated, and the thing about the heat is it combines with our physical and social vulnerability to imperil some of us. In disaster after disaster, we see the same pattern. It's the same neighborhoods, it's the same buildings, it's the same people. That also goes to another question. If we know in advance who's at risk, why aren't we doing more as a society to take care of them?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Kendra. For real, we're talking about wildfires now coming out of the drought and the heat. When we are looking at these compounding disasters like this, is there a way to prepare in advance? Should we be expecting this? What can we do collectively to build some infrastructure around it?
Kendra Pierre-Louis I be honest for a second. I'm losing my mind. I feel like these days, because everyone's paying attention now because it's hot and the second it gets cold. Again, people are going to stop paying attention and we should be preparing for these compounding disasters because they've already happened. Last year Charles got hit by multiple hurricanes and in between the multiple hurricanes it had to deal with a heatwave without electricity because electricity was out because of the hurricane.
Last year in central America, they got hit by Iota, and when in some communities that got hit by hurricane Iota or tropicals storm Iota, were like, "There isn't anything left to destroy because ETA, which had us two weeks earlier, already destroyed everything. We should be preparing for compounding disasters. Some of that is infrastructure, some of that is getting people out of harm's way. A lot of that is introducing and also a lot of that is reducing climate emissions, which the federal government continues to remain tacitly, unwilling to do.
The infrastructure budget just that slash dramatically around it to climate action and everyone keeps kicking the bucket down the can. Kicking the can down the lane or whatever. It's like, it's here, we're literally dealing with the effects of it. We're still not reigning in emissions. We're still not doing the things, we're still not preparing in the ways that we need to prepare because the second thing is get, "closer to normal", we forget.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I so appreciate your honesty and the intensity of this sense of like, "No, for real." We have had this conversation before and we are losing people and it makes us feel like we're losing our minds. Eric, let me come to you on this because part of what I notice when we get into the hurricane season or into the wildfire season or we start seeing the droughts is, when we talk about disaster preparedness, it is very individualized. Like, do you and your family have a plan? Do you have a backup generator? It's just you, how are you going to fix this? Is there a way that we can collectively, collaboratively, socially prepare for disaster rather than expecting each individual at household to do so?
Eric Klinenberg: Well, we have to, because as we all can see, this is not a problem that individuals can solve. Now we move from the realm of weather and society to the domain of politics. Someone asked me this week on Twitter, "What can you do to help people during this moment?" I said, "The way to help people right now this week when they're searing heat is to check in on people who are close to you, whether that's physical close, socially close, and you scream for everyone in your community to do the same".
What we do long-term is everything in the political sphere to elect officials who are going to take global warming seriously to work in our communities to make sure that we have a collective plan to look after each other to push for new kinds of energy, renewable energy and to make sure that we don't think that this is all about what one mayor does or what one governor goes, how they perform in an individual event. This is now the new normal. We will deal with weather like this for the rest of our lives because we're in a new climate. The only way that we can address it is to rebuild.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now I feel really sad, because, Eric, for you to bring us to the land of politics as a place where potentially we could do collective and collaborative work it feels like nearly impossible. Right now in this moment where we are selected to see each other as the enemy across ideological or partisan differences, when there is so little trust in the government is the first piece of infrastructure building actually figuring out how to trust each other and trust the processes we have for making collective decisions like science and government.
Eric Klinenberg: Melissa, I don't think that we fix this ideologically. I don't think we'll have a debate where someone will articulate a position that's so compelling that everyone on the left and the right and the blue and the red will come together. I think we fix this by making things, by solving problems. I share your cynicism. This is a horrible time for divisive and violent partisan politics in the United States. It feels as if we are just at the edge of having everything fall apart, but we are also at the beginning of a rebuilding process. What's happening with an infrastructure campaign, the public programs that we are building give us what I think is the most exciting opportunity in my lifetime to create something that's fundamentally different to get off the track that we've been on for decades.
I'm not saying it's going to happen, Melissa, I'm not that glib or naive, but I think this is the fight of our lives. Our success depends on our capacity to link these overlapping crises. The climate emergency, the COVID emergency, the racial justice crisis, the inequality crisis to this project every building they're wrapped up in each other. If we don't engage them fully now we will miss the chance of our lives.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Kendra, is that conversation about social and racial injustice and infuse now in the climate conversation? Because for many years they felt like they were separate.
Kendra Pierre-Louis I definitely think it's a bigger part of the climate conversation, and something I want to piggyback on what Eric said is that it doesn't only have to happen on the federal level. This is also on the state and the local and the regional level like these things that need to get changed. You can pick the levels at where you get engaged and on those scales in particular, and even within the Biden administration, racial justice is interwoven with this economic justice. Isn't your wellbeing with this? Is your conversations that the climate movement at large is having whether or not it's effective is a broader conversation, but they are definitely raising this issue.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Kendra Pierre-Lewis is senior climate reporter for the Gimlet, Spotify podcast, How to Save a Planet. Eric Klinenberg is author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. Thank you to you both.
Eric Klinenberg: Thank you.
Kendra Pierre-Louis Thank you.
Sharon: This is Sharon [unintelligible 00:20:05], I'm calling from Portland, Oregon and I'm calling to let you know how the heat has affected us here. A lot of our plants were very droopy, it was very hot. Our air conditioning had to work overtime. Thank you. Bye-bye.
Kelly: Hi, this is Kelly. I'm calling from Newburg, Oregon. The heat wave impact on us, I think is more emotional than anything else. I had to bring the animals in, because I was a little worried about them in the heat, but more than anything just made me grumpy. I've had to be more aware of my interactions with family and others, and how the slowly rising heat you don't notice until suddenly you're grumpy. Thank you so much. That's my takeaway.
Lori: Hi, this is Lori with [unintelligible 00:20:46] Oregon. What am I concerned about in terms of the heat? How about water, fires, air quality, something we contend with every year, but this year just feels like we're starting off pretty firmly. Thank you.
Amber Klein: This is Amber Klein from Nashua, New Hampshire, and I love the heat. I let all my co-workers know that I'm a first-saver, I work in a hospital and all the patients are having a hard time because it's hot and a lot of the bubblers are turned off because of COVID.
Kate: I'm Kate from Portland, Oregon, and this heatwave has not just been bad for health living in the Pacific Northwest, but also for our mental health. I know a lot of people are really struggling with thinking about the future and the impact of climate change. I am totally not the only one who was going through a mentally dark period. Just worried about the future.
Brian: Hi. The heatwave was really pretty bad you're on Monday. There was over 115 degrees and it reminded me when I lived in Arizona because the humidity was just rung out of the air, really low humidity. But we didn't have any problem. There were no power shortages or blackouts. I think it's going well. I live in Portland, Oregon. I'm Brian.
Dunia: This is Dunia from Portland, Oregon. I think this weekend really brought about the disparity in our populations and especially how help you services there are for our health lifts community, we really had to rely on nonprofits and volunteers and people pulling together to make sure that people had shade, people had water and what they needed in order to survive. We didn't have Red Cross here and it didn't seem like we had a lot of effort from the city itself. Got really brought to light once again how we're failing our [unintelligible 00:22:56] with community. Thank you.
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