A Slow Motion Disaster

On June 24th, 2021, at approximately 1:25 in the morning Eastern time, Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium building in the Miami suburb of Surfside, Florida, suddenly collapsed.  As of this writing, 95 people were killed.  When we see reports in the media, we can look with our own eyes at the pile of rubble and know, instinctively, that this is a catastrophe.  To reach that conclusion, we also need someone to blame — the dust from the collapse had not even settled when reports started surfacing of the homeowners’ association (or Condo board) being insolvent and/or ignoring warnings made by structural experts.  And so, however near or far we are from the site of the event, we process this as a disaster.

The day after the collapse, another disaster occurred.  However, it failed to grip our attention the way the Surfside Condo Disaster did.  The media reported it, but there was no pile of rubble or dramatic image to go with it, and while it can be argued that we are all partially to blame for it because of the way we live our lives, there is no single cause that can, even speculatively, be singled-out as causing it.  We all have a vague notion of what’s causing it — well, that’s not entirely true; there are some who flat-out deny what more than two dozen scientists at World Weather Attribution are on record concluding was "virtually impossible" without Climate Change.

I’m talking about the Pacific Northwest heat wave in late June which was a mass casualty event.

Pacific Northwest heat wave 2021

At least 83 people died from heat-related illness in Oregon, 54 of which were in Multnomah County, which includes the state’s largest city, Portland.  In Washington State, at least 78 people died, while across the Canadian border, in British Columbia, officials there counted nearly 800 deaths from June 25th to July 1st — 500 more than is historically normal for that same time period.  Many of the dead were older, living alone, and without functioning air conditioning, according to a preliminary report on excessive heat deaths released by Multnomah County today.  Extreme heat also disproportionately kills in low-income communities, people of color, and the elderly.  As of yesterday, health authorities in Oregon report about two-thirds of heat wave deaths were people of color.

Compounding the problem, according to a 2020 analysis in the official journal of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology, is the fact that the number of heat-related deaths in the US each year has been underestimated since researchers typically only look at specific medical terms such as heat stroke and neglect other potentially heat-related causes of death, like heart attacks or how extreme heat impacts underlying medical conditions.

According to Aaron Bernstein, the interim director for the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, "Our brains are highly tuned to pictures of destruction, because we don't want that to happen to us.  With heat waves, there usually isn't a visible swath of destruction.”  Why is the tragic loss of life in Surfside, Florida a daily headline event, and yet a comparable loss of life in the Pacific Northwest, at least in terms of the numbers, isn’t?  "There's no single person that you can point a finger to on Climate Change," Bernstein said, touching on what I alluded to above with regard to the alleged negligence or at least mismanagement by the Champlain Towers South HOA.  He added, "Our brains are much more likely to pay attention when there's a person to point a finger at.  There are other reasons, but all of those reasons make very clear to me that we have to make Climate Change personal, actionable, and urgent.”

Researchers say it's important to understand that Climate Change is already affecting our lives and that unless we develop heat action plans, particularly in historically marginalized communities, people will suffer and die from extreme heat as Climate Change accelerates.  Given the impact on poor and minority demographics, it is plain as the nose on your face, thoughtful reader, that this is a matter of social justice.  "If nothing is done, and people continue to be vulnerable, I would say, by logic, the number of people affected would go up,” according to Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Perhaps a good place to start would be to make Climate Change denial as unfashionable as smoking.  When I was a boy, me, and Gene, and Randy, and William would steal cigarettes from our fathers and smoke them in the alley behind Ed’s Liquor Store.  It was cool.  Well, they were cool; my dad smoked Virginia Slims (a lady’s cigarette brand) for some reason known only to him, so I was decidedly uncool.  But my point is if some kid showed-up behind Ed’s today, even with a pack of Marlboros, his friends would look at him as if he were holding a live grenade, so effective has the public campaign to raise awareness about the health dangers of smoking been, just in my lifetime.  Climate Change cannot continue to be something just Al Gore, or lesbians from Berkeley wearing Birkenstocks, worries about.  It affects us all, it should alarm us all, in a way almost no other crisis except maybe the COVID pandemic and vaccine hesitancy does.

Just because it doesn’t happen all at once, or have an identifiable villain, or get captured on cell phone video doesn’t mean Climate Change isn’t a disaster, and one that is upon us, right here, right now.

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