September arrives this year in the northern hemisphere with less regret than usual that summer is ending—instead, there’s a surge of relief that the searing temperatures of the last few months may finally be over. As you have undoubtedly heard, 2018 is shaping up to be the fourth-hottest year on record, with the first three being 2016, 2015, and 2017, in that order. While the privileged among us sweated mainly as we scurried between our air-conditioned offices, cars, and houses, elsewhere, people were dropping dead in extreme heat, not only in poorer countries like Pakistan—where an all-time record temperature for April on the planet was set at 122 degrees Fahrenheit—but in places like Japan, where more than 80 people died in July (and where another record, of 104 degrees, was set), and Canada, where unusually hot summer weather has cost at least 70 people their lives.
And while California was fighting the biggest wildfire in its history, the Mendocino Complex, forest fires in drought-ridden Sweden were breaking out even above the Arctic Circle, where high temperatures had baked the land and turned the woods into kindling.
In one of the weirder weather stories, a reporter for The New York Times recounted a recent visit to Muynak, Uzbekistan, in the aftermath of a windstorm that had covered everything in a white grit like snow. But, actually, the grit was salty—a reminder that the parched village was once a port on the Aral Sea, now 75 miles away and far smaller than in its glory days as the earth’s fourth-largest inland body of water. Still, the news was not all bad: the rusted hulks of ships that are beached like whales on Muynak’s dry seabed have been drawing sightseers, boosting the local economy and giving new meaning to the term ecotourism.
Among the scariest aspects of the many reports detailing this year’s heat waves are the remarks from scientists reminding us that radical climate change used to be a fear for the future. But the future has arrived. “What we’re seeing today is making me, frankly, calibrate not only what my children will be living, but . . . what I am currently living,” Kim Cobb, a professor of earth and atmospheric science at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta told the Times.
While the causes of extreme weather and natural disasters can be complicated, scientists agree that the rising baseline of global temperatures is a significant factor—and as carbon emissions continue to go up, so will the thermometer.
According to the just-published annual State of the Climate report, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), part of the U.S. Commerce Department, last year saw the highest levels of greenhouse gases, the highest sea-level rise, and the lowest ice coverage in the Arctic and the Antarctic ever.
The scenario is grim: severe droughts and flooding. Failed crops and famine. Uncontrollable fires. Crashing electrical grids. And rapidly rising human casualties. One recent study projects five times as many heat-related deaths in the U.S. by 2080, with much higher mortality in the less developed world. An article last year in National Geographic maintained that, without a major reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, the majority of the world’s population will be threatened by heat-related death by 2100.
As stewards of the built environment, architects continue to have a role to play in communities and with clients about how to positively affect the ecological future of our world.
This is not a good time to be a skeptic about the human factor in climate change, or to politicize the issue. That the President announced the U.S. is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate—the only nation in the world to not stand with every other country to undertake serious measures to reduce carbon emissions and stem the rise of global warming—is a terrible failure to confront the reality of a crisis that we’re all sweating every day.