A recent post we shared by a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists really hit close to home for me. In the post, we got an in-depth look at a major problem with climate change: hotter nights. While it’s good work, I think we often forget to talk about the human side of the problem in plain terms. Here’s the passage that I thing gives us a great example of this problem:
“The health risks associated with hot nights are particularly high for those without access to air-conditioning or for whom the choice of turning on the air-conditioning presents difficult financial trade-offs. People of color and people with low incomes are particularly at risk, as they disproportionately live in hotter urban environments or have less financial flexibility to keep the air conditioning running. Those conditions often stem from the fact that decades or centuries of systemic racism have resulted in chronic underinvestment in the health and wellbeing of people of color and their surrounding environments. When heat puts untenable strains on the electric grid and causes blackouts or when power is shutoff preemptively to mitigate wildfire risk, the inability to cool off at home at night can affect millions of people.”
Yeah, that’s a big wall of less-than-accessible text for many people. If you’re college educated and have real-life exposure to the issues the author was talking about, it brings up the mental imagery to really process what she’s talking about. If you don’t have both of those things in your background, it looks like a hypothetical ivory tower look at the problem. Worse, it probably looks like left-wing social justice hand wringing to conservative people in the suburbs and exurbs.
So, I want to share some real-life experiences I’ve had with hot nights to drive this important point home.
Being Poor In The Phoenix Metro Area & Losing Life Support Systems
When I first graduated college, I took a graphic design and marketing job in expensive Scottsdale. I didn’t have much money, and I didn’t get all that much by Scottsdale standards. But, by my small town New Mexico standards, it was serious money. I stayed with some relatives for a bit while I started the job, and quickly found out that moving the rest of the family over was going to be more challenging than I thought. Everything was so damned expensive! So, I ended up in an apartment near ASU in Tempe.
It was really a terrible apartment. People would scream at each other outside at night threatening to kill each other. On several occasions, people tried to kick our door down, probably because some people across the way were selling drugs and they didn’t have the money for their next high. We were on our own when it came to police, who wouldn’t do anything about the problem. The problem only went away when we creatively let the right people know that messing with our apartment was an extremely dangerous idea.
Here’s the thing about Phoenix heat in the summer: it’s quite tolerable for a couple minutes at a time. Unless it gets enough time to soak into your clothes and skin, you don’t notice it that much. A quick walk across the parking lot isn’t a big deal, and if you can park in the shade, your car isn’t a hot oven. The only time you can really do anything outside is at night, but you’ll still want to go back to air conditioning as soon as you can during the hottest weeks.
But, one afternoon things started getting really hot in our apartment. When I got home from work, family members were complaining about the rising heat. Neighbors were walking around outside asking each other if their apartments were getting hot. It turned out that the apartment complex had a central air conditioning system, and the equipment had gone out. What was once tolerable in short doses quickly became not only uncomfortable but nauseating and exhausting. 90 degrees isn’t a big deal when you’re running between cars and air conditioned buildings, but when it’s 3 AM and your bed is 90 degrees, it’s a serious problem that keeps you from sleeping and being able to work the next day.
We used some tricks we had learned from relatives in Mexico who grew up before air conditioning was common. Getting sheets wet helped keep body temperatures down. I even figured out how to construct a crude evaporative cooler using the broken air conditioner’s heat exchanger and some wet rags, but it was a chore to keep the rags wet. During the day, I took everybody to work, and they hung out in my office to stay cool. But, not everyone was so lucky. I saw neighbors laying in the grass while the sprinklers watered it. Other neighbors sat in their cars for hours to cool off, burning up a bunch of gas they probably couldn’t afford. Other people sat outside sweating or wetting themselves with tap water, hoping that the breeze would cool them off.
Years later, I worked as an Uber driver for a while in the area. It was then that I realized how enormous of a problem this really was. While occasional air conditioner problems would leave people struggling, this was normal life for the metro area’s homeless population.
One night, I saw a man passed out on the sidewalk. I pulled over and checked him out. He was breathing and had a weak, slow pulse. He was covered in ants. I was able to briefly sit him up and get him semi-awake, and got him to drink some sips of water and Gatorade, but he passed out again. Paramedics figured out that he was having a diabetic episode, exacerbated by the heat.
I saw many other homeless people barely hanging on in the area. Most would find a place to hide during the day, wetting themselves with whatever water they could find, sitting in the shade, and sleeping the heat off. Only at night would they be able to get up and go look for food, water, and people willing to give them loose change.
In other words, the night was the only refuge for the homeless and the poor I saw and talked to. Take that away from them, and you’ll start finding many more dead and dying poor and homeless people in the heat. It’s a real problem, and not something we can describe in a political jargon-ridden paragraph vaguely describing people in different social groups. Academic descriptions of problems is important for academics, but doesn’t help make the story relevant to the average person.
Getting real stories of bad things happening to real people out there is the only way to get people to care about the problem.
Featured image: Cars entering and exiting the Deck Park Tunnel in downtown Phoenix at night. Image by Jennifer Sensiba.
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