By Yehudis Gold
“It’s just so hot,” says Mindy, a mother of seven, who is slogging through the sticky streets of Brooklyn this summer while doing her grocery shopping. Without a car, she’s used to picking up milk in the sleet and a loaf of bread during a scorcher. “But I don’t remember it ever being this bad,” she says.
A common complaint, perhaps, but is it true? Dozens of headlines this season sport phrases like, “It’s not your imagination, it’s really hotter than usual,” and the like, so perhaps it is.
The earth’s temperature has risen 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees F) over the past 100 years, and while there is controversy as to whether humanity has contributed to it, can reverse it, and if so, how, the earth’s warming is a reality that will and perhaps already is having an impact on societies in all sorts of obvious and more subtle ways.
“There is evidence that rising temperatures and extreme heat events are making it more difficult to work or be outdoors,” says Rachel Benzer Kerr, Professor at the Department of Global Development, Cornell University. She points to the heat waves in Europe this summer as illustration, which are “emblematic of the kind of extreme event that we know is happening with more frequency and greater intensity.”
“The regional and sectoral manifestations of these heat waves are varied and very place specific,” says Daniel Scott, University Research Chair and Professor at the Department of Geography and Environmental Management, University of Waterloo.
“In North America, we have widespread availability of air conditioning in homes, schools, health facilities, and businesses that help keep most people safe from exposure to extreme heat. That is not the case in many parts of the world. Even in northern and central Europe the prevalence of air conditioning is not nearly as widespread.”
While certain regions and certain professions are particularly affected by the heat, the average person feels it as well, in everything from taking a walk to catching the bus to work.
“Outdoor labor and sports do have higher health risks during extreme heat,” says Professor Scott. “Labor codes protect laborers to some extent,” but there is strong evidence of an increase in the risks of occupational injuries during heat waves, most often in agriculture, forestry, construction, and manufacturing, and “increasingly in service jobs like retail and tourism that are not as well studied and reported.”
Another casualty of the heat has been outdoor day camps.
“I’ve been making a little backyard camp for nearly 20 years,” says Chavi H. who lives in Brooklyn. “I live in a matchbox house and have relied on a big backyard with a covered porch for my camp. In previous years, we spent most of the time outdoors, and only brought the kids inside for bathroom breaks, but now it is just not safe to keep children in the heat for long stretches at a time.”
She ended up renting an available basement and running her camp there.
“Now, we rarely go outside, except on cooler days, and on swimming days I insist each child get into the water. It doesn’t seem responsible to have anyone sitting in the heat for an hour without constant drinking and cooling off.”
Mindy doesn’t run a professional day camp, but she is usually director of Mommy day camp each August. Without funds for a mountain rental, she’s used to making her summers work in the city. “I used to research so many exciting and less well-known attractions. There’s a ton of free and interesting stuff to do around the boroughs, it’s really amazing.”
But now she says it’s just been getting too oppressive to go on outings. “Most of where I take the kids is outdoors, and it’s just too many hours to spend on the streets, walking to our destination, then walking around our destination … it’s not really a good option anymore. I see my kids’ faces get increasingly redder and more lethargic. I’m not sure what to do with them!”
The heat isn’t just stronger, it also lasts longer.
As scorching summers make their way deeper into the autumn months, the clothing industry is rethinking its modus operandi, particularly the ushering in of winterwear as early as July in most retail stores. With some shockingly poor December sales on scarves, hats, boots and coats in 2016, some companies have floated the idea of a later debut for winterwear.
But that’s just delaying winter. What if winter becomes increasingly mild in many parts of the world?
“We’ve been talking now for 20 years of trans-seasonal fashion,” one expert on the clothing industry told Fast Company. “Between everybody traveling so much, there’s a lot of things like lightweight wool that goes from tropics to winter places, or smart fabrics that can respond to clues in the environment to get warmer or cooler.”
Or, for the less techno-oriented, “the middle-of-the-road” stuff, as one designer put it. People will be increasingly shopping for medium-weight, versatile clothes that do well in most temperatures and don’t scream winter or summer. As for fleece sweaters, down coats and the like, retailers are still buying this inventory, but less of it.
One demographic whose wardrobe won’t see a significant change because of the heat is the Chassidic community. Noticeable for its fur shtreimlach, bekeshes and layers of clothing, even with the temperatures increasing, they won’t compromise their mesorah for temporal comfort any more than, l’havdil, the Queen’s Royal Guard would doff their uniforms to cool off.
The only area in which there is willingness to make changes is one about which there is no tradition prohibiting modification: The thickness of bekeshes — the long Shabbos formal satin coat — and reklach — the long weekday coat.
“You can now buy a bekeshe and rekl with or without a lining,” said Heshy, a Boro Park resident. “I actually have different ones for winter and summer. It really makes a difference.”
Another aspect to the warming story is a longer allergy season. With milder temperatures come longer stretches of spring, and therefore more sniffles and clogged sinuses.
Interestingly, although most prognostications regarding a warming world are negative, oftentimes apocalyptic, one of the possible benefits is what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls “decreased cold waves.” With fewer frosty months, the winter killers such as influenza and pneumonia may decline.
A Pack of Parks
“One important strategy of adaptation which is also a mitigation approach [reducing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere] is increasing the amount of urban parks, trees, gardens, green roofs and other green infrastructure,” says Professor Benzer Kerr. “Urban green spaces provide sources of recreation, support urban drainage as well as cooling the city, and even help with our mental health.”
Jon Warland, Associate Dean for the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph, notes how city temperatures are exacerbated by the “urban heat island,” where the heat is more intense than surrounding areas usually due to lack of greenery. “These impacts disproportionately affect marginalized communities since those are the neighborhoods much less likely to have green spaces and tree-lined streets.”
Professor Benzer Kerr echoes that idea. “Some parts of a city will be cooler than others, depending on whether there are more trees and green spaces that provide shade and absorb some of the heat.”
And sometimes those seemingly arbitrary bits of green can come along with an ugly past. “In the United States, there is evidence that the amount of urban green space and extreme heat experienced is also shaped by a history of redlining, such that low-income people of color are less likely to have access to these cool green spaces and are at risk from higher urban temperatures during extreme heat waves.”
While greenery may be the savior of the heating story, it’s also a victim.
“I also think about the impacts on gardens,” says Professor Warland as he considers the many aspects of daily life affected by the rising heat. “Here we are very fond of our front flower beds, and right now they are suffering from drought. Last year, they seemed to suffer much greater disease than we had ever seen, which may have been due to an unusually humid spring.”
Shifts like these can bring about all sorts of unexpected consequences to ecosystems. “Insect pressures on gardens, and agriculture in general, are increasing as they are more easily able to overwinter, and the extended frost-free season means some species can fit in an extra generation in a year.”
And that is a whole load of extra critters.
“I had a call from a farmer the other day with related questions, and we discussed how the changing climate has made forecasting less predictable, as past years’ patterns are no longer a good guide. Gardens, agriculture, and natural systems are all negatively impacted by uncertainty in precipitation, which in many temperate regions is now coming more sporadically but when it does it comes in high intensity that can do more damage than good, even before it reaches the point of flooding.”
Crops in general are at risk if temperatures continue to increase. “There is a lot of research on how agriculture will shift with climate change,” says Professor Scott, noting that after about +2 degrees Celsius of warming, major cereal crops globally may begin to decline. However, there are specific areas where productivity is expected to increase, such as Canada and Russia which, presumably, will experience milder temperature more suited for agriculture. “More immediately, extreme heat impacts crops like fruits and wine grapes.”
With the heat high, the A/C bills are even higher.
“We’re spending hundreds of dollars on cooling each summer month,” says Mordechai K. “I was comparing my bills from last year to this one, and it’s 20% higher.”
While that may be anecdotal, are electricity bills generally going up because of the heat?
“Yes and no,” says Professor Scott. “Summer air conditioning costs have increased in areas that have access to it, but warmer shoulder seasons/winter temperatures offset annual electricity use to some extent as well.” With longer stretches of mild weather in the spring and autumn, many can get away with minimal heating or cooling for those stretches.
Another variable is that electricity grids are challenged by demand during extreme heat waves, sometimes resulting in summer blackouts or brownouts. The American Geophysical Union published a study projecting an 8% increase in summer air conditioning demand over the next decade which will cause increased summer blackouts unless states expand capacity or improve efficiency.
As consumers increase their A/C consumption, there can be some unexpected fallout besides a spiking electric bill.
“My company is buying a building in Texas,” says Chaim T., “so I came down to take a look at it.”
Although the building met his expectations, he was taken aback by the state of the windows all across the 10 stories. “They nearly all had A/C units poking out of them. The screens were removed and some of them were broken, giving the place a rundown look. We had been told that the building had a central cooling system, which it did. But this summer was so intensely hot, the system couldn’t keep up.”
Residents were buying their own units to help cool down. The result — a staggeringly high electricity bill and a ragged-looking exterior.
A warming planet may usher in a variety of changes and challenges requiring human ingenuity and adaptive skills. On a micro level, and for Mindy and her family who are sweating it out in Brooklyn, that ingenuity takes the shape of putting clothes in the freezer, walking around with a mist-maker spray bottle, turning on the sprinkler at every opportunity, and spending lots of time in the shade with frozen water.
“It really is the hottest summer,” she concludes.
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