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‘If You Get Too Hot, You Will Die’
July 14, 2023

‘If You Get Too Hot, You Will Die’

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The invisible killer that’s ruining summer., Heat deaths: Climate change’s most immediate killer.

I called up Jeff Goodell because I wanted a kind of weather report. Goodell lives in Austin, Texas. When I reached him, he told me it was ‘relatively cool’ outside. ‘And by that, I mean 90s,’ he said. ‘When you see a number with only two digits instead of three, it feels like the depths of winter.’

Goodell has spent the past few weeks sweltering under the Texas ‘heat dome.’ It’s so hot that when he goes to his car, he says, he has to brace himself before touching the steering wheel.

‘We have a public swimming pool, a really great place called Barton Springs, in the center of the city. And you go there at 9 or 10 at night, and it’s jam-packed with people,’ he said. ‘And the water is perfect and cool. And it feels like when you jump in, your body kind of sizzles because it’s so hot and then you’re cooling off so fast. It changes everything about the rhythms of your life. People are scared.’

People have a reason to be scared. Last month, a postal worker in Dallas collapsed and died in the heat. Multiple hikers have been killed, too, including a father and his stepson. And all this is extra eerie for Goodell. He just wrote a whole book begging all of us to take heat more seriously. It’s called The Heat Will Kill You First.

‘I have this Stephen King–like feeling of living in the pages of my own book,’ he said.

This summer is proof: We are living in an overheated world. So, on Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoked to Jeff Goodell about what we’re going to do about it. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: Before we get too far, I want to ask you about the title of your book. It’s called The Heat Will Kill You First. Why that title? Where did it come from?

Jeff Goodell: What I wanted to really communicate is the immediacy of heat and the immediate dangers and risks of heat. We talk a lot about climate change, and we talk a lot about the different impacts. My previous book was about sea level rise, and that’s a really significant thing that is changing the boundaries of the land and the sea and having massive implications for coastal cities around the world. But no one’s going to stand on the beach and die because a glacier is melting in Antarctica. It’s not going to happen in real time. Heat will. You can go for a walk on a hot day, and if you’re not careful and you don’t know what you’re doing, and if you get stuck in a really hot place or you have any kind of medical conditions or you run out of water—all kinds of things can go wrong—you can die. And people do die all the time.

Your book begins with this very affecting story of a whole family who died from heat exposure. I’m wondering if you could just tell their story and what happened to them. 

It was a very tragic story of a family who had just bought a house outside of Yosemite National Park in California. He was a software engineer in Silicon Valley. They were exploring the area, and they decided on one Sunday to go for a hike not far from where they lived. They left early in the morning. The father put the 1-year-old child in a carrier on his back, and they took their dog with them, and they went for a hike. They hiked a couple of miles down to a river, hung out there for a little bit, and then began their climb back. It was about a two-mile hike back, but they didn’t consider heat. It was hot. It was like 100 degrees—hot but not the kind of number that would just scare the bejesus out of you immediately. Unfortunately, though, they had to climb up this very steep mountainside that was directly exposed to the sun. And they very quickly got into trouble. It’s not exactly clear the sequence of things, but basically they found the entire family dead on the trail the next day.

Including the dog.


And the baby.

And the baby, yes. And it was an incredible tragedy and a very sad story, but emblematic to me of how the risks of heat and heat exposure are completely misunderstood.

You’ve written really eloquently about what could have happened inside these people’s bodies as they fought off the heat. Can you explain that a little bit? Like what happens exactly?

We talk a lot about hot days, but what really matters is our body’s temperature. We have a very narrow range that our internal body temperature can tolerate. What happens on a hot day, especially if you are doing something like hiking or doing any kind of physical work, is that your body begins to overheat. And when your body begins to overheat, we only have one mechanism to cool off, which is sweating. So, in order to cool off, your heart starts pumping faster, pumps more blood out to your skin, where you sweat and the evaporation from the sweat cools off that blood and circulates through your body. But if the heat is accumulating faster than it can be dissipated that way, there is no other mechanism in our body to get rid of the heat. So, your heart starts pumping faster and faster and faster. Your body pulls the blood away from the inner organs, desperately trying to get it out to your skin to cool off. You begin to get dizzy. You begin to hallucinate.

You’ve said that actually inside your body, some systems begin to melt.

At an internal body temperature of about 104, 105, something like that, your cell membranes actually begin to denature, like what an egg does when you put it in a frying pan. The proteins break down. Your cells begin to actually melt. The proteins begin to unravel. Things happen like the lining of your intestines begins to come apart. Your blood starts clotting. It’s really a kind of cascading chaos in your body that is very difficult to stop. Even if you go to a hospital, if you’ve gone too far into a heat stroke, it’s very, very difficult to repair the damage.

It’s also weirdly silent. One thing with learning about this family’s death in California is it took a long time to figure out what happened with them. Months, and even then it was just process of elimination. It highlighted how there may be lots of people dying from heat, and it’s possible we don’t know.

Oh, it’s not only possible, it’s very certain that we don’t know. Heat death statistics, everybody acknowledges, are wildly underestimated. Heat’s not like a gunshot or gun. It doesn’t leave a wound on your body. And so, when people die of heat, they actually die of something else, like a heart attack or something like that. And in this case, with this family, no one could believe that two adults, a baby, and a dog could all just be dead from heat. And so they looked for other things. They looked for water poisoning. They looked at some kind of group suicide thing, they looked at carbon monoxide release from if there were any mines nearby. And it became clear it wasn’t any of those things. And heat was the kind of obvious killer, but the invisible killer, the one that left no footprints, no tracks. And that’s sadly what heat does, and sadly why it’s so widely misunderstood and underestimated.

This family story also highlights something else, which is something you focus on in your book: the fact that deaths from heat are getting ‘more democratic.’ It’s not just older people, outdoor workers, other vulnerable groups that are being impacted. It’s everyone. These are just people out for a pleasure walk, essentially.

Heat is democratic in the sense that all living things have this thermal range that they can deal with. And it doesn’t matter if you have $100 million in the bank or if you have no money. It doesn’t matter if you’re living at the equator or the North Pole. If you get too hot, you will die. And so heat is very democratic in that sense, but it’s also democratic in the sense that it’s not just outdoor workers and things now. If it’s 115 degrees and very humid, you don’t have to spend a lot of time outdoors or be stuck in that kind of environment to die.

A lot of people say, ‘Oh, well, it’s no big deal. We have air conditioning. We’ll be fine.’ Well, you’re not fine, because what happens if the power goes out? Here in Texas, we had a five-day power outage a couple of winters ago. I was here for that. If the same kind of thing happened during a heat wave in a major city, thousands of people will die. It will be what one infrastructure expert in my book described as a ‘heat Katrina,’ referring to Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans a few years ago.

And even if the heat doesn’t kill you, it’s not good for you, right? Can we talk about the trickle-down impact of heat on human health?

There’s more and more evidence showing that heat has psychological impacts. Suicide rates go up, rates of violence go up.

But it’s also the way heat impacts a lot of things around us. It impacts the food that we can grow and where we can grow the food. And that has enormous not only public health implications, but economic implications. If it gets too hot to grow corn in Iowa, which is not hard to imagine, that’s going to change things in Iowa in a very big way.

It changes disease patterns. I spent a lot of time with public health officials and others who trap and track mosquitoes. And just last week, it was announced that we’re seeing a resurgence of malaria in the United States for the first time in many decades.

Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.

You’re talking about the hidden hand of heat, which I hadn’t really considered. But then I guess I should, because you look at what happened a little bit earlier in the summer with the wildfire smoke. There are going to be more wildfires because it’s hotter and the smoke is then going to drift around. And that’s also part of this, right?

We’re talking about heat here, and it’s like we’re talking about it as just another aspect of climate change. It’s like there’s droughts, there’s sea level rise, and there’s heat. But that’s not true. Heat is the primary driver of all of these things. The reason there are bigger, hotter wildfires, the reason the East Coast was covered with orange skies for a week and people were inhaling wildfire smoke, is because it’s been hotter in Alberta. The soil is drier, the trees are drier. They’re more like kindling wood. When they do start from lightning or for whatever reason, they burn bigger and faster and hotter.

Is there any chance, given the research you’ve done, that you think humans might somehow adapt to heat as a new normal?

Well, sure. Part of the thing implicit in your question is, when you say humans, Who? Certainly, humans are incredibly good at adapting to things. We adapt to all kinds of horrible and wonderful things. So, I have no question that we will adapt to this in some ways, but there will also be a lot of loss, a lot of suffering, a lot of death. I’m sitting here in my office in Austin, and four blocks away from me are 200 people living under an overpass who are homeless, who are suffering greatly. And I promise you, they are not going to have as easy a time adapting to the next extreme heat wave as I am going to have.


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