I generally avoid books on climate change because they scare the shit out of me. There’s nothing like reading for hours about how we’re mindlessly ruining our only planet to bring out maximum anxiety and helplessness. I’m always left with a deep urge to do something, and feeling that it’s all out of my hands anyway. But I also don’t like to be ignorant, so when I saw The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet (2023) by Jeff Goodell on NPR’s “Books we Love” list, I figured it was time for me to face the mess we’ve made of this planet.
I listened to this on Audiobook, and I found it both interesting and informative. It wasn’t exactly what I expected. There was plenty of information on climate change, how much we need to change our habits, and how late we are to the game in terms of actually making a difference. However, it did not go too much detail on fossil fuels, how much we are burning, and how badly we need to stop; that’s more of a given. Instead, there are a lot of in-depth stories of people suffering from the heat we already have, and even personal stories of the author’s travel near the Arctic.
The book begins with the tragic deaths of a couple, their toddler, and their dog from heat exposure while on a hike in California. I remembered reading about this in the news because it was initially a mystery as to what killed them. Goodell goes into great detail of the family’s plans for the day and what happened to them. And even though these deaths may or may not have been specifically caused by climate change, it does viscerally show how quickly heat can turn a fun, active day into an unexpected disaster. The author even details how he overheated while hiking in South America. It came on so fast, and he didn’t realize how serious it was until it was over. It’s a scary and dangerous thing.
In a long section on air conditioning, Goodell delves into the history of air conditioning, where it began, how it spread, and how it changed building styles. As we deal with higher and higher temperatures, more air conditioning just compounds the greenhouse gas problem as we burn more fuels to stay cooler. And because many buildings today were made for air conditioning, they are especially bad about using shade and breezes to naturally cool down.
Air conditioning is a nice segue into the problem with cities. Cities get significantly hotter than surrounding rural areas because of all the asphalt and lack of trees. Goodell discusses the heat wave in France that killed thousands of people. Paris was a city that was built in cooler temperatures, and the zinc, uninsulated roofs, make the upper apartments near death traps during heat waves. But all cities will have to deal with the heat. More trees, painting roofs and streets white, and other solutions have started being implemented in some cities, but you need money and political capital for that kind of thing.
One interesting discussion was about a woman who has created a model that can take natural disasters that occur now, and see if they were more likely to have occurred because of climate change. It is a way to more clearly see the effects of climate change and possibly even point a finger at those who are responsible.
This book mentions again and again how it is the poor who will suffer the most from climate change. The ones with means will be able to move, will be able to cool themselves, and be able to afford the higher cost of food and other essentials. The Heat Will Kill You First has accepted that we are now dealing with climate change, and is now focused on living with it.
So, did this book scare the shit out of me? Yes. But it was interspersed with a lot of detail and stories that occasionally took me out of “panic” mode. The author himself ends the book on a relatively positive note–saying that he has been inspired by all the smart, talented people working on this problem.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.