The hottest days on record have been this week

“It was getting hotter.”

-Kim Stanley Robinson,
Ministry for the Future (2020),
opening line

Greetings from early, very hot July here in the eastern United States.

My apologies for not blogging much the past few weeks, but things have been chaotic here.  My wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. My father died in Michigan at 91.  A series of professional projects grew in size and complexity.

And around all of this wildfire smoke spread, and then the temperature rose.  This week the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer project tracked the hottest global temperatures on record:

world temperature 2023 July 6_Main Reanalyzer

As always, I turn to the climate crisis’ essential bard, Bill McKibben:

Monday July 3 was the hottest day anyone had ever measured on planet earth. True, our system for measuring the global average temperature—a network of weather stations, ocean buoys, and satellites—only dates back to 1979, but that means that at a bare minimum it was the hottest day a large majority of the earth’s population had ever been alive to witness. And in truth, we have good proxy records—things like ice cores and tree rings—that take that record far back in time. 

Put another way:

The best estimate of climate scientists is that Monday was the hottest day since sometime in the last interglacial period 125,000 years ago, right about the time that other scientists think humans etched the first symbols onto bone and started wearing shells as decorations. [emphases in original]

My wife and I were spending a couple of days on Virginia Beach as this historical heat spike struck, and felt it keenly.  We felt like the spaceship crew in that classic Ray Bradbury story, soaring too close to the sun.

Virginia Beach sunny morning 2023 July

In the morning, looking out to the eastern sea, my camera trying to cope with the furious sun.

What does this all mean for the future?

I hope that these blazing temperatures convince more people – voters, CEOs, policymakers, consumers – to take climate change more seriously.  We are racing ahead into worse territory, and perhaps cracking heat records will inspire a more forward-looking attitude.

At the same time, I worry that when the temperatures fall again, as they will, and when the smoke recedes, that so will climate from our mental horizons. Climate deniers are quick to pounce on any stray bit of environmental news which complicates simplistic pictures of global warming, and they will chortle when, say, September’s temperatures drop below records for a few days.  More importantly, so many people are now so concerned with so many other issues that they can let this one slip, perhaps filed under “environmental stuff” or “nice to think about, but not necessary today.”

What does this mean for higher education?

I’m already on record as advising colleges and universities to prepare for excessive heat, with all that means.  One immediate action is to create or expand already existing cooling shelters on campus, as well as opening them to the off-campus community, and also pointing academics to community support.  Steadily (if unevenly!) rising temperatures may cause us to rethink schedules – perhaps eliminating summer in-person classes and events.

Unfortunately there is more complexity to the issue. A campus may have provided sufficient cooling for its denizens. That might not assist people living off-campus, from students to staff and faculty, any of whom might not have sufficient air conditioning, especially people who are medically more vulnerable to high temperatures.  Additionally, even if we assume an academic community that’s entirely protected from heat, air conditioning may fail as the local grid strains to cool everyone else under the same temperature.  Recall that the technologies involved – air conditioning units, local power supplies, the power grid in a region, how it connects with other regions – may not all be up to spec, given how unappealing infrastructure investment remains.

Consider this in terms of institutional choices. Should a campus effectively restrict its physical operations for one, two, or three summer months, closing up classrooms and residence halls, focusing resources on maintaining buildings worked by professionals on twelve month contracts requiring them to be on site throughout?  More ambitiously, should campuses in the hottest times shut down completely and shift operations online?

Don’t forget how expensive electrical bills might become when trying to apply cooling to a fiercely heated site.  How can a financially struggling campus choose where and how much to cool? They will have to balance cooling needs against everything else, which means all kinds of comparisons are available. “Did we air condition empty buildings last summer instead of replacing a retiring physicist?”  “Do we have to choose between comfort/safety and decent computer upgrades?”  And so on.

All of the above concerns the physical footprint of an institution.  As always, I remind readers to recall that higher education engages the climate crisis across several other domains.

How higher education engages with the climate crisis_overall

Research: to what extent will excessive heat slow, stymie, or damage scholarship? Think about materials – archives, sites, biomes, equipment – which might not be available above a certain absolute or wet bulb (heat plus humidity) temperature.  Will heat crises slow research agendas? At the same time, will relevant faculty be able to research these crises, perhaps with students as collaborators?

Which brings us to teaching. If a campus is safe, how many students will be pulled towards family elsewhere who are suffering? How will the experience of living through a heat crisis form a student’s attitude towards studying the climate crisis in general? Or, turned around, to what extent can we teach a very immediate heat emergency as an example of a broader curriculum?

In another domain, how does a heat crisis impact academic-community relations?  I’ve already mentioned the possibility of town-gown cooperation on cooling shelters.  Of course, that collaboration can turn to its reverse as either academics or non-academics resent the other for how it handles, or is perceived to handle, the crisis.  To what extent can a financially stressed college open its doors to the community?  How can a county or city justify diverting resources to an academic population sometimes deemed to be privileged? Further, how many faculty, staff, and students can essay the public intellectual role, sharing their academic learning with the broader world to explain, illustrate, or agitate?

Let’s return to the Robinson and McKibben quotes cited above. They remind us that these heat alerts will keep coming and will get worse. This is not a blip. We all need to bear this in mind, make plans, and take steps accordingly.  Things will get hotter.

I’ll pause for now, because this is already a post longer than I planned on, and also because you, dear reader, may already be thinking of other implications. Please do share those thoughts in comments.  Above all: be safe.

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3 Responses to The hottest days on record have been this week

  1. Arin says:

    Great post as always Brian. I tend to take a different perspective on air conditioning or artificial climate adjustment. For one, climate control for one group of people campus while no provisioning for others leads to unintended inequity in climate adjustment and I am not sure any conscientious academic will approve this. Second, air conditioning using electricity generated with fossil fuel will make climate worse. Third, air conditioning leads us to the sense of lull that we can control this when we cannot and we must reflect on our consequences.

  2. Mark Vickers says:

    Bryan, Do you know about the degree to which campuses are leveraging IRA incentives to invest in renewables? Is that on the radar of many higher ed institutions?

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