Q&A: Jeff Goodell says air conditioning won’t save us

By Daniel Cusick | 07/26/2023 07:13 AM EDT

Jeff Goodell.

Author Jeff Goodell has written a new book on the dangers of extreme heat. Matt Valentine/jeffgoodellwriter.com

Jeff Goodell nearly collapsed on a summer day in 2019 when he walked 12 blocks in the heat of downtown Phoenix. The dizzying experience made enough of a mark that it inspired Goodell, a longtime journalist, to write about what is arguably the most insidious climate killer.

“The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet,” hit bookstores on July 11, which happened to be the 12th day of an ongoing streak of 110-plus-degree days that has crippled Phoenix, the nation’s 10th-largest metropolitan area. On Wednesday, the Arizona city is expected to extend its deadly heat record to 27 days.

Goodell’s book is the latest in a series of in-depth works he’s done on climate change, following 2018’s “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World” and 2011’s “How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate.”


E&E News caught up with Goodell, a Rolling Stone contributing editor and 2020 Guggenheim fellow, at his home in Austin, Texas, last Friday, hours before temperatures in central Texas reached triple digits for the 13th consecutive day.

What was the origin of the “The Heat Will Kill You First”?

I was in Phoenix after I finished my last book about sea-level rise. It happened to be a hot summer day, something like 115 degrees [Fahrenheit]. I walked about 12 blocks to a meeting, and by the time I got there, I was dizzy and my heart was pounding. I thought, Oh, my God, this is brutal.” If I had to go three more blocks, I’m not sure I could’ve made it. That’s sort of the moment this book was born.

I hope you’re not in Phoenix now.

Almost as good. I’m in Austin.

Over the last two weeks, the nation’s attention has focused on record-breaking heat in Arizona. But this isn’t just about Phoenix, is it?

No, and this moment is showing that. A few weeks ago, the heat story was about Texas and Florida. Now we face [simultaneous] extreme heat events around the world, from Italy to China. Phoenix is just an easy shorthand for talking about the implications of these kinds of events.

Beyond near-heat exhaustion in Arizona, what prompted you to write about heat?

I knew heat was fundamentally related to the warming of our planet. But I hadn’t really thought about its immediate impacts, especially on people. Moreover, not long ago, I couldn’t tell you what heat was. I could tell you that 77 degrees was cooler than 79 degrees. But if you asked me, “What is heat?” I couldn’t have done it. So I started to look around for what else had been written about the effects of heat on people, and found this was a fertile, interesting subject to spend a few years writing about.

Do you see some irony that heat is often the last climate change impact many think about, yet “global warming” and “climate warming” are the terms we use to refer to what’s happening today?

It is ironic, but it’s not surprising, because heat is invisible, unlike hurricanes, where you see roofs being blown off houses and streets swamped with storm surges. Drought can also be very visible — like Lake Mead [in 2022] — and of course wildfires are communicated easily. Yet I’m sitting in Austin looking out the window, and I couldn’t tell you if the temperature is 70 degrees outside or 115.

Do the media bear some responsibility for the awareness gap?

Overall, we in the media have done a bad job communicating about heat. We often see heat stories with pictures of kids playing in sprinklers or people hanging out at a beach. Also, for weather reporters, it’s more fun … to be holding onto a lamppost and filing your story from the middle of a storm. That’s awesome TV. No one wants to stand out in a heat wave in a puddle of sweat and get dizzy on air. Heat is not a ratings machine.

In hot climates like the Southwest, air conditioning seems an obvious solution to heat. But do we make a mistake by assuming that AC will always be available?

I have a very easy answer to that, which is “yes.” We are way overrelying on air conditioning. It’s the American desire for a techno fix. We just plug this gizmo into the wall or a window, and it magically transforms heat into cool, and everything is fine. In my reporting, I spent time with a lot of people who have air conditioning but can’t afford to run it. The link between poverty and heat risk is inextricable, and the economic and environmental justice issues are profound.

We can air-condition our houses and offices and feel good about ourselves. But we’re not going to air-condition the ocean. We’re not going to air-condition the forests. We’re not going to air-condition the wheat fields. Crops have thermal limits, and in this kind of extreme heat, they die just like people do. We’re also not going to air-condition all the other things living on the planet that also suffer under extreme heat. It’s not just about us.

[Air-conditioning] also creates a kind of false security. When we have a major blackout in a hot city like Austin or Dallas or Phoenix, all of these air-conditioned houses and many of these new buildings with sealed windows that don’t open, they become convection ovens where people die.

What about the idea of compounding climate disaster? A hurricane comes first and knocks out the power for days, then the heat sets in.

That’s the nature of climate disasters. There are cascading effects. And it’s not just the temperatures of our bodies. It’s the infrastructure around us. We’re seeing airplanes that can’t take off because runways become soft, or we’re afraid bridges are going to break because the steel loses strength at very high temperatures. All of the infrastructure in our lives has thermal limits, and we don’t think about that until we’re living it.

In the past few years, we’ve seen deadly heat in the Pacific Northwest and high heat in historically cooler regions like New England and the Great Lakes. Are these unexpected events warning signs about what’s coming?

That’s one of the most important things to grasp about this moment. We’ve left the climate we all grew up in behind. That doesn’t exist anymore. Because of the amount of CO2 we’re putting in the air, the atmospheric dynamics have shifted in a very profound and subtle way. Climate scientists have a good understanding of the dynamics of long-term warming, but when it comes to near-term extreme events, that’s much more difficult.

Scientist have always been cautious about answering to what degree does this or that disaster have a climate signature or a relationship to climate change. Are we moving to a point now the caveats are less necessary?

I have a whole chapter about that in my book. The science is called climate attribution. Being able to attribute a particular event to higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere has made tremendous progress over the last decades or so. [For example], experts know the extreme heat wave in the Pacific Northwest [in 2021] was virtually impossible without the elevated CO2 in the atmosphere. It would not have happened.

How do you deal with the “Chicken Little” analogy — that environmentalists see every storm, flood or heat wave as evidence of climate change?

There’s all kinds of deniers out there for all kinds of reasons. But it’s interesting, the level of denial has not really changed in recent years — it’s about 10 to 15 percent [in polling of U.S. voters]. Yet the number of people who think that climate is an urgent problem has grown quite a bit.

A book like mine, people say it’s an alarmist title. I don’t think of it as alarmist at all, it’s simply the story of what we’re seeing on the ground. I actually think we’re in a hopeful moment, because people are listening. There are a lot of things we can do to create a safer, cooler and more equitable world. But we have to face the scope and scale of what we’re facing.