Sunday, August 08, 2010

Terror in the Age of Consequences

An object lesson in global heating: a tragic heat wave in Russia means bread may cost more in America. Responding to the loss of at least a fifth of its wheat crop due to unprecedented heat, Russia has banned wheat exports. That's what captured international attention (briefly)--but the extreme heat in Russia has also claimed the lives of thousands, although no exact count has been published. These heat waves, which Weather Underground's Jeff Masters calls "one of the most extraordinary weather events of my lifetime," have also touched off devastating fires that claimed more victims. "...soil moisture in some portions of European Russia has dropped to levels one would expect only once every 500 years," Masters writes.

There may be many reasons that we don't have an actual count of heat-caused deaths in Russia. But it's worth mentioning that I can't find an accurate tally of heat-related deaths this summer in the United States, where heat waves continue, and have been experienced in nearly the entire country. When I googled this, the most recent national count I got was 150, but simply adding up reports from individual cities and states comes to more than that: 132 in California, 27 in the Washington DC area (as of July 27), 19 in Maryland, 13 in Memphis, 11 in Philadelphia, 10 in Oklahoma, etc. And apparently in many places, quantifying those deaths in a google-capable newspaper story isn't important enough to do.

I also came across an article in Slate from 8 years ago noting that heat-related deaths outnumber deaths from floods, tornadoes and earthquakes in an average year--in fact, heat-related deaths are double deaths from all the others combined. Yet, writer Eric Klinenberg asserts, Americans ignore heat-related deaths and illnesses. More than that, in at least one major case, many deny these deaths took place. A Chicago heat wave in 1995 killed 739 in one week, more than twice the number of people who died in the great Chicago Fire of 1871. Yet---

"From the moment the local medical examiner began to report heat-related mortality figures, political leaders, journalists, and in turn the Chicago public have actively denied the disaster's significance and questioned whether the deaths were—to use the popular local phrase—"really real." Although so many city residents died that the coroner had to call in nine refrigerated trucks to store the bodies, skepticism about the trauma continues today. In Chicago, people still debate whether the medical examiner exaggerated the numbers and wonder if the crisis was a "media event" that the press had "propped up somehow." The American Journal of Public Health definitively established that the medical examiner's numbers actually undercounted the mortality by about 250 since hundreds of bodies were buried before they could be autopsied. But how many people read the American Journal of Public Health? For now, the heat wave stands as a nonevent—perhaps a footnote—in the grand narrative of affluence and revitalization that dominates accounts of urban life in the 1990s."

One possible reason that the Slate writer suggested for this disbelief was that people who die from the heat usually live alone--they are typically old people. While that's undoubtedly a factor in why they died and why people don't know the people who die from the heat, this phenomenon of denial seems so close to how some people deny global heating that I wonder if something similar is going on. Are the roots of the denial the same?

It's worth exploring, especially considering the much more visceral response to the kind of attacks officially lumped together as terrorism. Is it possible that the spectre of excessive heat, of persistent excessive heat and its effects caused by global heating, is so much more terrifying that denial is the first defense?

It is terrifying. It is painful to contemplate-- at times overwhelmingly so. My insistence on confronting it here has probably limited this site's readership significantly. But I believe that there are ways to prepare for such new realities, beginning by dealing with heat-related problems right now. And by understanding that the most pervasive source of terror is going to be global heating, if it isn't that already.

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