Preparing for the Heat: Climate Resiliency in a Burning World
Two degrees of average warming is NOT our problem
The climate change event nearly everyone is at risk for is extreme, temporary heat. Yes, I know that the IPCC is focused on the average temperatures around the globe and the scientists are focusing on keeping us below 2° C. But when we talk about average temperatures going up by 2° C, which is around 4° F, it doesn’t sound like a big deal. On many days in the northern latitudes, one could expect someone to think: “Hey, it wouldn’t be so bad if it were a few degrees warmer!”
Friends, two degrees of average warming is not our problem. Climate change is coming, and it is going to show up as an extreme heat event. Not two degrees or four. No. More like 30° F. Maybe 40° F. Not for a day. But for a week, maybe two. And daily low temperatures could stay over 100° F. We’re going to need a way to survive it, and most people aren’t ready. We’ll get to what we must do about it in a minute, but first, why the alarm?
Ringing the alarm over extreme heat
People are alarmed about heat because climate scientists are seeing it coming. We all know that there has been a relatively rapid change in average temperatures around the globe and that heat waves have come with it. Last summer, a heat wave in Europe killed an estimated 20,000 people when temperatures hit 40° C (104° F). That was hot, but it wasn’t even close to what some people are talking about.
The extreme heat I am talking about is measured by the wet bulb temperature, a measure that accounts for both heat and humidity and tells whether or not the body can naturally cool itself. Wet bulb temperatures of 95° F (35°C) or higher at 100% humidity, or 115° F at 50% humidity, are not survivable by human beings or animals for more than an hour or two; at least, that was the old theory. A report from a Pennsylvania State University study suggests that the actual number is much lower—closer to 88° F with 100% humidity. Whatever the actual number, there comes a point where the temperature/humidity combination makes it impossible for the body to cool itself, which results in overheating, heatstroke, and death. Survivable wet bulb temperatures have already been surpassed fourteen times since 1979, and the frequency of events hitting nearly unsurvivable levels is on a steep incline.
What is terrifying about this is simple—you can live in a mild climate anywhere on Earth, and you can still have five days of extreme heat hit your location. The likelihood of such an event is increasing everywhere in the world due to the La Nina/El Nino weather patterns. La Nina is a cooling of the surface water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, and El Nino is the warming of those waters. These two effects tend to temper hotter temperatures in the case of La Nina and exacerbate hotter temperatures in the case of El Nino. As mentioned earlier, a heat wave in Europe last year killed 20,000 people. Heat waves in India and Pakistan saw wet bulb temperatures closing in on the limits of human survivability. China had its own heat wave sending temperatures up to 107° F, but data on its impact are scant. A heat dome in Canada the year before killed 619 and burned a town. And, as I noted in this piece, a spring heatwave that felt great to Minnesotans and Wisconsinites this April sent temperatures to more than thirty degrees above normal. All of these events occurred while the cooling effect of La Nina was present. La Nina is expected to end in 2023, and El Nino, which drives temperatures higher, will begin to influence extreme weather, especially in the summer of 2024. As the three scientists who wrote this paper suggest, “2024 is likely to be off the chart as the warmest year on record.”
In other words, as bad as recent heatwaves have been—and they are approaching the limits of human survivability—the coming heat waves are likely to be much worse. Quite likely, several of them will go beyond the limits of human survivability. That's why there is such alarm.
Below this line are some practical considerations. Please consider the value of these ideas and support Carbon 350 with a paid subscription. For only $6 a month (or save at $32 a year), you can support and receive continued strategies and ideas for handling climate change. Thanks!
So, how do we survive?
Let’s start with the nature of the challenge. At this stage, we are strategizing to survive a temporary spike in temperatures beyond the level of human survivability—probably just a few days to a few weeks. We are not talking about forever. We are not talking about a permanent change in temperatures to such high levels. If temperatures were stuck permanently at such high levels, the entire ecosystem would collapse, including food supplies, since neither plants nor animals can survive that extreme heat any better than humans. It would become an extinction event on par with the dinosaurs. For now, that’s not our problem. The goal is to be able to survive a temporary heat wave that elevates the wet bulb temperature beyond survivable levels.
For most people, air conditioning is going to be critical. During the Canadian heat dome of 2021, 619 people died, two-thirds of whom did not have air conditioning. This has spurred discussions in Canada of the possibility of air conditioning as a basic human right, and the provincial government where it occurred is creating a report on the possibility of providing air conditioning to residents in a time of heat wave crisis. These reports make it clear how important cooling is going to be.
I’ve heard some friends say flippantly: “I’ll just go jump in the lake!” Bodies of water may help cool a body down, but you can’t sleep in the water, nor can you live in it. Also, bodies of water warm up, especially on the surface, and that may make such a strategy less successful. During the very warm summer of 1988, I was on a road trip for work and I recall looking forward to jumping into Lake of the Ozarks to cool off. Missouri was experiencing high temperatures of 105° F and higher. I was shocked when I finally hit the lake and the water temperature was 87° F degrees—not much cooling off there! If 105° F air temperature can turn a lake that size into an 87° F bath, imagine what would happen if the air exceeded 120° F—as it did in the Canadian heat dome when it hit 121.3° F in 2021. If the heat drives water temperature to, say, 101° F, it won’t help cool your body to the normal of 98.6° F. Even if the water is 95° F, it will still be of limited value. Perhaps there will be relief if you live near a glacier and can sit near the ice, but few of us have that situation. If you don’t happen to have a glacier to hang out by or cool water, air conditioning is likely your only other choice.
To get the air conditioning you need, you will need two things: a) a sound and working air conditioner suitable to the space you are trying to survive in and b) the electricity to run it. Both are essential.
Why cool a smaller space?
The first thing to do is identify the space you want to survive in. Most people will say their homes, but that may not be your best answer. Rather, you want the smallest survivable place that allows you to cook, bathe, sleep, and otherwise endure the temporary extreme heat. For me, that space will be half of my 500-square-foot cabin. I can close off the bedrooms, sleep on the couch in the living/kitchen area, and survive just fine. My partner, on the other hand, owns a two-story, 1800 square-foot townhome in a suburb. In her case, it might be best to target the lowest level for cooling and not try to cool the second level. This could mean closing upstairs registers or installing air conditioning units on the lower level only. The point is to reduce the amount to be air conditioned for this survival event.
The reason to shrink your targeted cooling space is simple: it reduces your need for energy. People will tend to think: Well, I have the air conditioning so if it gets hot, all I need to do is turn it on. I’ll be fine. The problem is, you might not be. In an extreme heat event, everyone will be trying to cool their homes or businesses. This will put an extreme load on the grid and the grid could fail. What does that mean? It means you don’t have electricity to run your air conditioning. If the wet bulb temperature is not survivable, not having electricity to run air conditioning means you will not survive. It is that dire.
Some options for a backup energy system
The answer, of course, is an auxiliary source of electricity—either an auxiliary generator or an off-grid renewable system sized to your need, either solar or wind. By cooling a smaller area and reducing your energy need, you can use a smaller backup energy system. The less you need to operate, the lower your cost for the backup system and the more likely that the system will work.
There is a big difference between standby generators and portable generators. Standby generators can run continuously for extended periods of time, whereas portable generators cannot. “While gasoline-powered portable generators can run for about 6 to 16 hours at a time… Well-managed propane portable generators can run for about 150 to 200 hours at a time (about up to 8 days).” Perhaps the portable propane generator will be enough for most people, but for the real security of electric generation, a natural gas or large tank propane-powered standby generator is even better. These units are set up to run continuously for thousands of hours, provided they have fuel.
The other option, for those who can, is a rooftop solar or wind system operating off the grid and powering your backup system with a battery pack. The key here is to have it right-sized for off-the-grid operation. The reason to be off-grid with batteries is that most rooftop solar systems are equipped by law with automatic turn-off in case the grid goes down. This is a safety issue for technicians working on a broken grid so that energy created on the rooftop doesn't feed back into the grid unbeknownst to the technician and electrocute them. Since we are trying to back up a grid that is shut down by too much demand, heat damage, or any other cause, the automatic shutdown feature will be triggered. That would make it useless to run your AC.
Just as with standby generators, the costs depend on sizing and how much of your home you want to operate during the extreme heat event. Bigger battery packs cost more money than small ones, as do larger solar or wind systems.
The point is that you need to have a reliable, non-grid source of electricity to keep cool in the case of a grid failure—an eventuality that is likely in an extreme heat event.
Alternatives for cooling systems
Finally, the third component for surviving temporary extreme heat is adequate cooling technology. Not all air conditioning systems are made the same. Some are more efficient than others, some are more effective than others, and some simply will not operate in the extreme conditions we are talking about. For most people, the key decision on an AC system will depend on whether they want to power the one they already have or need to install a new one. If you want to power a system you already have, then all you need to do is size your backup generation source to the needs of the AC and other requirements in your house, and you are done. On the other hand, if you have the option to install a new system, here are some ideas.
Based on my experience, I would avoid a mini-split air exchange heat pump like the one I have in my little cabin. It works great to moderate temperatures, but not when the temperature is above 95 F degrees. The manual says it will become less efficient over that temperature, but that’s what it said about heating when below 32° F, and the thing didn’t work at all at that temperature.
Ground-sourced heat pumps are different and will work in the extreme conditions we are talking about. They take less electricity than a regular air conditioner, thereby allowing you to also shrink your backup system. However, ground-sourced heat pumps are expensive to install, so if you don't already have one, they may be impractical as a strategy for dealing with temporary extreme heat events.
From the standpoint of cost, central air conditioning has similar challenges to ground-sourced heat pumps. Installation is expensive, especially if you don't already have forced air ductwork for your furnace. Most people who have central air conditioning installed will likely just need the backup electric generation to run it. If the backup generation equipment is too expensive, perhaps limiting the rooms you are trying to cool would help reduce the load on the generator and keep you cool longer. But you still need to make the backup energy system big enough to run the AC unit.
Window AC units are a likely alternative for many other people, especially those in older urban buildings and those who live in areas that are generally quite mild and don’t have AC as a rule. British Columbia, Canada where the heat dome occurred in 2021 is one example. I also think of San Francisco, where air conditioning is relatively scarce, and, of course, cities and neighborhoods in less developed countries where AC just isn't available. Residents who need to take action to protect themselves will need to do it through window AC units. If you are in this category, the size of the area to be cooled is very important because it determines the number of units needed as well as the load to be supported by your generator. This is why, in my own little home, I would close off half of it and cool only the other half—about 275 square feet. It will be far less expensive.
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Putting it all together
In summary, nearly everyone on planet Earth is going to need to find a way to stay cool for some temporary period of time. Where I live, and much of the US, we experienced a hidden heat wave in April 2023—thirty degrees above average for several days. High temperatures in the 80s and 90s were recorded. Records were broken in dozens of cities. The heat wave was hidden because most of us just experienced that week as one of beautiful weather, but it was thirty degrees above normal for that time of year. Few stopped to think that thirty degrees above normal in July would put the temperature at 115° F where I live, and at 120-130° F in other places.
Extreme heat events are going to get worse, and they will probably be much worse in 2024 and 2025 because climate change will combine with El Nino. We are already getting more and more hotter days. For most people, air conditioning with a backup electric source will become a life-or-death situation as long as any given temporary extreme heat event lasts. It’s not hard to see this coming. Take action now.
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I survived the Heat Anomaly Event of June 2021 in the Pacific Northwest. Temperatures reached 116° here in Portland and over 120° in BC. All-time records. I survived it but not before being sent to the ICU. My old septuagenarian body didn't handle it well. Your article makes perfect sense to me.
The issue of short term extreme events has me considering looking for a property that I could use as a second/retirement home with a tiny house that could be completely off grid. I’ve been thinking about it for a while actually. My plan had already been to sell my house in Austin eventually since property taxes make it expensive to live here and I don’t have as much space as I’d like to grow more of my own food. I’ve always leaned towards doing things this way. I’m an oddball in a city of oddballs. Lowering my fossil fuel use more and more each month thanks to your other articles.