Humans not attuned to current level of heat

ByUmair Ali

Trainee lawyer


August 2, 2022

Umair Ali describes an intolerable situation 

The recent heatwaves enveloping the globe have just gone beyond human endurance and have given rise to serious questions about the methods adopted to face this scourge. Heatwaves have gripped almost all continents with 100 million Americans under an excessive heat warning and oppressive heat is blanketing over 900 million people in China while millions across large swaths of South Asia suffered through weeks of a stifling, and deadly, heat. While early estimates indicate that more than 5,000 people died from lethal heat within the span of a week in Portugal and Spain alone but the full toll on the health of countless millions are not known. There is hardly any doubt that the widespread and unrelenting periods of extreme heat have catapulted the human race into the midst of a global public health crisis. Climate experts clearly warn that this is only a taste of what a hotter climate may look like just a few decades from now.

The entire process implies that the human race can expect more health harms, more suffering and more death simply because this is the kind of climate that humans did not evolve to withstand. It is widely known that human bodies toil hard to maintain an ideal temperature range as heat kicks people into high gear with hearts have to pump harder to increase blood flow to the skin so heat can escape into the air. The result is the human body producing more sweat, a critical tool helping it to cool off. Extreme and prolonged heat turns these tools against humans, especially if people do not have time to recover, rehydrate and rest. Losing too much sweat can cause dehydration, which can result in kidney damage with dehydration and the increased work of pumping blood to the skin can put a strain on hearts. That is why people with long-term conditions like heart disease are at much higher risk for health problems and death when the temperature rises.

Even though high temperatures are risky for all of people including older people, very young children, those with chronic medical and mental health conditions who are at the highest risk, along with anyone that has to spend long periods in high heat. Higher temperatures are also linked to higher rates of mental health hospitalisation, more suicides, more violence and lower test scores in children and lower productivity in workers. These factors point out that it is not just individual lives at risk, but entire societies face serious issues. For humans these scenarios are more than dangerous. It is found out that hospitalizations for heat-related illnesses have peaked at different temperatures depending on the region. The recent heat wave surprised even the areas that had never experienced higher temperatures such as Europe, particularly, the United Kingdom, where the temperatures rose to unheard of 40 degrees.

It is also believed that every geographical area is its own unique crucible of heat risk and this proves that people living in all areas are exposed to equivalent jeopardy once the temperatures keep on rising as they are now. It is in this context that it is observed that people are prepared to deal with rising temperatures much with the way they live. It is mentioned that areas that have widespread air-conditioning, accessible cooling centers, more tree canopy and lush greenery are more protective than areas without these amenities. Urban areas that have to contend with the heat island effect — areas where more concrete and fewer trees permeate more heat into the environment — can be up to 15 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than surrounding areas and it can put people at even higher risk for heat illness. Based on this, many will say that the solution to a warming planet lies in individual solutions like air-conditioners for all. But this short-term solution becomes unsustainable and in and of itself unhealthy given that air-conditioning contributes to air pollution, higher local temperatures because of heat waste from the units and even more greenhouse gas emissions.

It is clearly visible that higher risks are faced by people exposed to energy blackout and brownouts because from widespread air-conditioning presence they get used to and any discontinuation in this aspect negatively affects them and puts such people at even higher risk if that is the only cooling tool that is relied upon. Such a situation mostly faced by the countries of developing world where uneven supply of energy is far from satisfactory causing widespread discomfort to the people. Frequent power shortage equally creates problems for the people who do not have access to air-conditioning as they are directly exposed to the rigours of heat. The current situation is more than enough to prove that extreme heat events across the globe have shown that people cannot take heat waves as natural anomalies as they have become almost the new normal. TW


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