True stories to show how dangerous climate-fueled hot nights are

A recent article we shared with a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists touched my heart. In this article, we took an in-depth look at a major problem with climate change: warmer nights. Although this is good work, I think we often forget to talk about the human side of the problem in clear terms. Here is the passage that I think gives us a great example of this problem:

“The health risks associated with hot nights are particularly high for those who do not have access to air conditioning or for whom the choice to turn on the air conditioning presents difficult financial trade-offs. People of color and low-income people are particularly at risk because they disproportionately live in hotter urban environments or have less financial flexibility to run air conditioning. These conditions often stem from the fact that decades or centuries of systemic racism have resulted in a chronic underinvestment in the health and well-being of people of color and their environment. When heat puts unsustainable strains on the power grid and causes outages or when power is cut off preemptively to mitigate the risk of wildfires, the inability to cool down at home at night can affect millions of people.

Yeah, it’s a big wall of text that’s less accessible to a lot of people. If you are college educated and have actual exposure to the issues the author was talking about, it brings up the mental imagery to really process what she is talking about. If you don’t have those two things in the background, it’s like a hypothetical ivory tower examining the problem. Worse, it probably looks like left-wing social justice wringing the hand of suburban, suburban conservatives.

So, I want to share some real experiences I had with hot nights to bring home this important point.

Being poor in the Phoenix metro area and losing life support systems

When I graduated from college, I took a graphic design and marketing job in dear Scottsdale. I didn’t have a lot of money, and I didn’t earn much by Scottsdale standards. But, by the standards of my small town in New Mexico, it was serious money. I stayed with relatives for a bit while I started work and quickly found out that moving the rest of the family was going to be harder than I thought. Everything was so expensive! So, I ended up in an apartment near ASU in Tempe.

It really was an awful apartment. People were yelling at each other at night, threatening to kill each other. Several times people tried to break down our door, probably because people across the street were selling drugs and they had no money for their next high. We were alone with the police, who did nothing to solve 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 the heat of Phoenix in the summer: it’s totally tolerable for a few minutes at a time. Unless it’s had enough time to soak into your clothes and skin, you don’t notice it much. A quick walk through 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 get back to air conditioning as soon as possible during the warmer weeks.

But, one afternoon, things started to get really hot in our apartment. When I came home from work, members of my family were complaining about the rising heat. Neighbors were walking outside wondering if their apartments were getting hot. It turned out that the apartment complex had a central air conditioning system and the equipment had broken down. What was once tolerable in small doses quickly became not only uncomfortable, but also nauseating and exhausting. 90 degrees isn’t a big deal when running between cars and air-conditioned buildings, but when it’s 3 a.m. and your bed is at 90 degrees, it’s a serious problem that keeps you up and sleeping. able to work the next day.

We used a few tricks we had learned from parents in Mexico who grew up before air conditioning was common. Wetting the sheets helped keep body temperature down. I even figured out how to build a crude evaporative cooler using the broken air conditioner heat exchanger and some damp rags, but it was a hassle to keep the rags damp. During the day, I would take everyone to work and they would hang around my office to keep cool. But not everyone was so lucky. I saw neighbors lying in the grass while the sprinklers watered it. Other neighbors sat in their cars for hours to cool off, burning a pile of gasoline they probably couldn’t afford. Other people were sitting outside, sweating or getting wet with tap water, hoping the breeze would cool them down.

The homeless

Years later I worked as an Uber driver for a while in the area. That’s when I realized what a huge problem it was. While occasional air conditioning issues left people struggling, it was normal life for the metro area’s homeless population.

One night I saw a man pass out on the sidewalk. I stopped and checked it. He was breathing and had a weak, slow pulse. It was covered in ants. I was able to briefly sit him up and half wake him up, and give him a few sips of water and Gatorade, but he passed out again. Paramedics discovered he was having a diabetic episode, exacerbated by the heat.

I saw many other homeless people who were barely hanging on in the neighborhood. Most found a place to hide during the day, got wet with whatever water they could find, sat in the shade, and slept out of the heat. It was only at night that they could get up and get food, water and people willing to give them change.

In other words, the night was the only refuge for the homeless and the poor that I saw and talked to. Take that away from them, and you’ll start to find a lot more poor and homeless people dead and dying in the heat. This is a real problem, and not something we can describe in a paragraph laden with political jargon vaguely describing people from different social groups. Academic descriptions of issues are important to academics, but do not help make the story relevant to the average person.

Getting real stories of bad things happening to real people 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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