Are our rising temperatures humanity’s alarm bell? Can we ever get global unity to cut CO2 emissions? Jeff Goodell explains.
On this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, climate journalist Jeff Goodell vividly portrays our climate reality, where escalating temperatures and severe weather events are no longer exceptions but the norm.
The author of The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, Goodell, with over two decades of experience in humanizing climate change science, underscores the urgent need for international collaboration on CO2 emissions. He highlights the complexity of this task, as individual nations’ interests hinder collective action, a phenomenon known as “the tragedy of the commons.”
While applauding advancements in clean energy, such as the state of Texas sourcing 35 percent of its electricity grid from renewables, Goodell explains why the pace of change is too slow.
Goodell also discusses the unpredictability of local weather events, such as heat waves and high-pressure systems. These extreme events, though predicted in large-scale climate models, are hard to pin down in terms of local intensity and duration. He hopes these increasingly frequent extreme weather events will serve as wake-up calls, fostering a political consensus for action.
Goodell unpacks the role of fossil fuel companies in transitioning to clean energy. While some are attempting carbon capture and storage, Goodell questions the viability of these solutions, advocating instead for the elimination of all fossil fuels.
Goodell’s insights highlight the urgency of the climate crisis and the necessity for both individual and collective action.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Climate change is no longer a distant threat. It’s our present reality. For years, we’ve grappled with the abstract concept of a world on fire, but now the stark implications of that phrase are coming into sharp focus. We’re witnessing escalating temperatures, rising sea levels, and increasingly severe weather events. What was once an existential threat discussed in theoretical terms has become our lived reality.
My guest today, Jeff Goodell, has been on the front lines of the issue for years. As a long-time climate journalist, he’s been translating the science of climate change into human stories. His new book, The Heat Will Kill You: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, is a sobering exploration of the intensifying crisis from the story of Sebastian Perez, a migrant worker who succumbed to heat exhaustion in the fields of Oregon, to the legislation in Texas that fails to protect vulnerable outdoor workers.
While many proposed solutions to climate change are years away, the neglect of past decades means that we’re now forced to face the immediate consequences of our inaction. The question is no longer just about how we can mitigate climate change, but how we can adapt as human beings to the hellish conditions we’ve created.
Jeff Goodell is the author of six previous books, including The Water Will Come, and has covered climate change for more than two decades at Rolling Stone. He’s a senior fellow at the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center and a 2020 Guggenheim fellow. Today, he joins us to discuss the urgent need for action and the potential pathways forward in the new climate reality. Jeff Goodell, welcome back to the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Jeff Goodell: Happy to be here.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, it is a delight to have you here. Certainly, we’re experiencing all of this extreme heat right now. One of the points you make is that heat itself really is the first-order threat that drives everything else with respect to climate change. Talk about that.
Jeff Goodell: Well, in this book, The Heat Will Kill You First, I really wanted to talk about heat on two different levels. One is the genesis of the title of the book is what it does to us and to our bodies in real-time right now when you go for a walk on a day when it’s 115 degrees and what the implications of that are. But I also wanted to talk about heat on a planetary scale and to help my readers understand that when we talk about climate change and all the impacts, like drought and sea level rise and more wildfires and all the kinds of things that we’re familiar with, it’s heat that’s really the primary driver of all that.
It is heat that is drying out the ground, that is stressing the trees, that makes them more vulnerable to wildfires, and causes those wildfires to get bigger and burn longer and hotter. It’s the heat in the ocean that is changing our atmospheric patterns. It is the heat in the oceans that is causing the glaciers in Antarctica, for example, where I visited, to melt faster. So, in the book I call heat the engine of planetary chaos, and it really is.
Jeff Schechtman: And you spend a lot of time talking about the fact that the impact that it has on human beings is virtually cellular in nature.
Jeff Goodell: Yes. And it’s something that a lot of us, including me, prior to writing this book, don’t really understand. We think of heat as sort of– even in the phrase global warming, it sounds like better beach weather. And there’s a lot of talk about the dangers of 1.5 C or 2 C of warming. And that just to most people just doesn’t sound very alarming or a very big deal. Who can tell the difference between a 77-degree day and an 80-degree day? Sounds inconsequential.
And so my book is a really an attempt to reframe how we think about heat and really think of it as an active force and to help readers understand that as we move into this new climate that we’re building, by burning fossil fuels and loading the atmosphere with C02, we’re pushing towards more and more extreme events, which means we’re going to see heat waves that are going to be hotter and hotter and hotter, that are really beyond the boundaries of what we humans evolve to deal with.
And it puts enormous strains on our bodies to try to function in these kinds of extreme heat levels. The dangers of those extreme heat levels are really poorly understood by most people.
Jeff Schechtman: And one of the things that seems to be shocking in all of this is the number of deaths currently that are related to heat that really go unreported because of the nature of how heat affects us.
Jeff Goodell: Yes. Heat is not like a gun; it doesn’t leave a wound where the bullet hits you. If someone dies of a gunshot wound it’s not very mysterious what happened; they have a hole in their body somewhere. Heat is not like that at all. Heat puts enormous stress and strains on our bodies and people die of various kinds of organ failures and other problems, mostly heart-related issues, heart attacks. But it doesn’t leave any telltale signs.
So the heat deaths need to be diagnosed because of the context. A person had a heart attack. Yes, well, he or she was sitting in a 115-degree room for four hours, and that is the contributing factor to why this person had the heart attack because their heart was working so hard to try to cool off their bodies. So the larger point here is that the heat mortality numbers globally, I’ve talked to a lot of public health officials, are wildly underestimated, and we don’t really have good numbers on how many people are killed by extreme heat.
Jeff Schechtman: Is the heat that we’re experiencing today, this heat belt that we seem to be feeling everywhere on the globe right now, is this an early warning or is this as bad as it gets, or is it going to get much worse, do you think?
Jeff Goodell: Well, that’s entirely in our control, depending on how fast we stop burning fossil fuels. The reason our planet is heating up is because we are, we meaning not just America, but the whole civilized world, the industrialized world is continuing to burn fossil fuels, and that is putting more CO2 into the atmosphere, and that is what’s causing our climate to heat up.
The extreme heat that we’re seeing right now that feels so shocking to a lot of people because it’s so global and it is so extreme, including for me here in Texas, [I’ve] been living through it, is well within the boundaries of what climate modelers have been predicting for decades. So on one level, this is no surprise, and it’s very clear that unless we radically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, these kinds of extreme heat events and other extreme climate-related events are going to accelerate, and it’s going to get hotter, and it’s going to become a more chaotic world.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that you talk about in the book is the need to adapt to this because clearly, no matter what we do, it is not going to be instantaneous. There is at best a gradual nature to this so that we have to learn to adapt to this kind of climate.
Jeff Goodell: Yes, we do. And that phrase adaptation is a very loaded phrase and has a lot of complicated implications and a lot of caveats and things. And the first of them is that heat is very predatory. It goes after the most vulnerable people first, to people who are not lucky enough to spend their lives in an air-conditioned bubble, who are outdoor workers, who are working on construction projects or delivering packages or working in agricultural fields, harvesting our food, older people who have any kind of heart or circulatory conditions, pregnant women, children, people who are on particular kinds of drugs like diuretics and beta blockers that make them more vulnerable to heat.
So adaptation is different for different kinds of people. And there’s this false idea out there that there’s a kind of techno-fix for this. That basically we just need to get more air conditioning to more people, and we’ll be fine with heat. And that’s just a profound misunderstanding of the circumstances that we are throwing ourselves into here. The outdoor workers here in Texas that I just saw this morning sweating out on the street, repaving a street not far from where I live, they’re not going to get air conditioning.
The agricultural worker I talked about in my book who died in the fields during the 2021 heat wave, people like him are not going to get air conditioning. We’re not going to air condition the wheat fields and corn fields where our food crops grow. We’re not going to air condition the oceans. There are billions of people on the planet who are not going to have access to air conditioning, no matter how hard we try to subsidize the purchase of air conditioning and subsidize the electricity costs of it. It’s a profound misunderstanding that we can just simply adapt to this. Yes, there are a lot of things that we can do, but it’s also true that there is a bright line between the cooled and the damned as we move into a hotter world.
Jeff Schechtman: You talk about this Goldilocks zone, the temperatures in which human beings are best able to function, and that that’s always been the framework in which the planet operates. Explain that.
Jeff Goodell: The Goldilocks zone is a phrase that planetary scientists who are looking for life on other planets use. When they’re searching the skies for places where they might find other kinds of life, other presence of life, they look for liquid water, which is seen as a sign of the possibility of presence of life. And places that are too cold, there’s no liquid water because it’s all ice. If it’s too hot, the water vaporizes, and there’s nothing there. They’re looking for these places that are not too hot, not too cold. That phrase, Goldilocks zone, comes from that.
I use it in this book to describe the conditions that all life here on Earth have evolved in, not just us humans, but all living things have evolved to deal with a range of temperatures that we humans, for example, are really good at dealing with. We can handle 50 degrees, 40 degrees even. We can handle 100 degrees, depending on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. But we can’t handle 150 degrees, for example, or 100 and even 130 degrees for very long without dying.
Our bodies are these exquisitely tuned machines that are good at keeping our temperature at a stable level as long as it’s within these boundaries. Why I use the Goldilocks zone in the book is this idea that as our planet heats up and these extreme temperature events get more and more extreme, we’re moving out of that Goldilocks zone. In other words, we’re moving out of the range of temperatures that our bodies have evolved to handle, and that’s very dangerous.
Jeff Schechtman: And to what extent do these extreme temperatures create an almost self-perpetuating problem? That as we get more of these extreme temperatures, we get more fires, which have their consequences in terms of what they release into the atmosphere, that it causes sea-level rise because of the melting, that all of this has a perpetuating impact.
Jeff Goodell: That is true. As I mentioned at the outset of this, heat is the primary driver of all of these things. And as these impacts accelerate, they also have these cascading consequences. But it’s not just the consequences of the natural systems, it’s also the consequences of the political system that we have. As these consequences, as it gets hotter, as the sea levels rise, on one level there’s more push towards adaptation and people waking up to the world that we’re creating and trying to do something about it.
But there’s also a drawing up of bridges and a walling off and trying to protect oneself and not so much worry about what’s happening in the world. One of the things that I worry most about in this question of how are we going to adapt to this comes out of what happened with COVID, which was basically, at a certain point, we just accepted a certain number of deaths from COVID are going to happen every year. And that’s just the new world we live in where tens of thousands of people a year will die from COVID, and that’s just how it is.
And I worry that we’re going to move into a world where we think that these extreme heat events and coastal cities being flooded by higher and higher tides and crop failures and all that is just the world we live in, and we will adapt to it in some willy-nilly way that leaves a lot of people out. And as a consequence, there will be a lot of suffering and death that we will just accept. And we will forget that this climate that we’re living in and these extreme events are a man-made creation.
We created this climate by continuing to burn fossil fuels for decades after we knew what it would do. And there will be just a lethargy about all of this. And that’s the adaptation that worries me the most.
Jeff Schechtman: Is this a straight line? Can we assume these extreme temperatures year after year? Or even worse, will we have some years where they don’t exist, which will add to the lethargy that you’re talking about?
Jeff Goodell: Well, climate and weather, first of all, are two different things. Climate is long-term projections of warmth and of changes and then weather is what happens tomorrow and next week. They’re very different. They’re both connected, of course, but weather itself is very chaotic. So, weathercasters can forecast pretty well what’s going to happen for the next five days. You ask them to forecast what it’s going to be next month, it’s a little bit more difficult.
Ask them what it’s going to be exactly in six months, it’s very difficult because of the butterfly effect of chaos. But we know one thing very clearly, which is that all of this extreme weather, especially extreme heat, is driven by higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. And it’s very clear that we are going to continue to see temperatures rising until we stop emitting CO2.
Once we get to net-zero CO2, that means the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere stop climbing as they’ve been doing since the Industrial Age, once we get to a flattened CO2 [where] we’re no longer adding to it, then the temperatures will stop rising. It’s a very direct relationship. But it’s very important to note that when we get to that level of net-zero, that’s when temperatures will stop rising, but we will not go back. We have left behind the climate that we grew up in.
CO2 stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years. We are, in effect, making permanent changes. We can have a big impact on how far those changes go by keeping the CO2 levels down as much as possible. But the temperatures will rise until we stop, until we get to net-zero CO2.
Jeff Schechtman: And net-zero on a global basis. This is not just an American phenomenon.
Jeff Goodell: Right. And that’s what makes climate change such a tricky political, economic, and moral problem is that it’s often been pointed out that it’s this idea of the tragedy of the commons. That there’s enough grass for all of the sheepherders if everyone just takes a little bit. But if one sheepherder decides in the middle of the night to let– he wants to fatten up his sheep particularly more than everybody else and lets his sheep out in the middle of the night and eats all the grass, then everyone suffers.
And that’s in the most simple way part of the problem with dealing with CO2 reductions globally is that you have a lot of countries whose national interests are in not reducing CO2 or at least slowing it down. And until we all realize that we’re all in this together and that we all need to continue the metaphor, “Keep our sheep alive,” this is a very difficult problem to solve. And we’ve not done a very good, we, meaning the civilized world, have not done a very good job at it.
There’s an incredible amount of progress on clean energy. Here where I am in Texas, 35 percent of the grid now comes from renewable power, and that’s in the fossil fuel center of the United States. It’s amazing. The economics of clean energy are great, but it’s not happening fast enough, and we’re still burning a lot of fossil fuels. And, yes, the new builds tend to be, if economic rules hold, renewable, clean power, but we are still keeping a lot of these old power plants going.
China is still building a lot of coal plants. Europe is not knocking down their coal plants and getting off of natural gas fast enough, nor are we. So we’re still not making progress anywhere near quickly enough.
Jeff Schechtman: Are scientists surprised at the extremities that we’re experiencing this year? Was there the assumption that this would be more gradual?
Jeff Goodell: No. Well, yes and no. No, these extremes that we’re seeing right now are well within the boundaries of what all of the best climate models project. There’s error bars on these projections. And what we’re seeing right now is completely within those error bars of these climate models. And I want to add that these climate models that sometimes get disparaged and ridiculed have been extraordinarily good over the last few decades even though oil companies like ExxonMobil had really good climate models in the ’70s and ’80s and knew exactly what the relationship between rising CO2 and rising temperatures were.
So this stuff is really well-tuned, robust and so in that context, no, it is not a surprise. What is a surprise is the extremity of these local events. No one predicted that there would be, for example, a 121-degree day heat wave in British Columbia in 2021. The atmosphere is a chaotic system. One of the things that’s happening as we change the thermal gradient between the equator and the poles is that it’s making the jet stream, the big atmospheric river of wind in the stratosphere that drives a lot of our weather, it’s becoming wiggly and unpredictable.
So these heat domes are emerging, which is what I’ve been living through here in Texas and what’s happening in Phoenix right now. These high-pressure systems are emerging in places that are virtually impossible to predict exactly when they will emerge and how long they will last. So, the big picture is no surprise, the small picture is, yes, it’s surprising the degree to which some of these systems have arisen and how long they’ve persisted.
Jeff Schechtman: The current extreme temperatures seem to be happening, as we talked about earlier, throughout the globe right now. China even just saw some of its highest temperatures on record. Is this going to be some kind of a wake-up call?
Jeff Goodell: Well, first of all, I would hope. I’ve been hoping that for 20 years since I’ve been writing about this. And I don’t think that there’s one general wake-up call. I don’t think there’s going to be some kind of global awakening where, all of a sudden, everybody realizes and comes together in some kind of kumbaya moment that we need to do something about this and change our ways and really get serious by getting off fossil fuels and helping the vulnerable deal with the impacts of climate change and all of that.
But I do think that there are individual wake-up moments. And everybody has what Al Gore once told me called an “oh, shit” moment when they realize the consequences of what we’re doing and what this climate crisis means. And I asked President Obama about that in 2015 when I went to Alaska with him, and he talked about seeing the bleaching of the coral reefs off in Hawaii, where he grew up and which he loved very much, and that was his sort of wake-up call. So I think there’s a wake-up call for everybody.
Well, maybe not everybody. I don’t think we’re ever going to get 100 percent of the people of the world to understand the emergency that we’re in. But I think that it’s very clear over the last decade or so that the political consensus, political momentum is growing towards taking more and more dramatic action. On that level, I’m very encouraged. When I started writing about climate change 20 years ago, it was like I was writing about the sex life of porcupines or something. Nobody really cared. And now it’s the center of every conversation, whether it’s about economics, whether it’s about where do I live, it’s about food. It’s become the conversation of our time.
Jeff Schechtman: Because it’s a conversation really about, and this comes back to the human side of it that you write about, it’s a conversation about survival.
Jeff Goodell: Right. It absolutely is a conversation about survival in the biggest sense. And I’m not in any way a doomer. I don’t think that this is the end of the human race. And I don’t use phrases that some really good scientists use and some really good writers use, like “sixth extinction” or something like that. I think the scale and scope of the challenges and the changes we face are enormous and underappreciated.
But I also think that we are at this inflection moment of all this where there’s a real opportunity to make dramatic changes. It’s not too late at all. There will be a lot of suffering and loss, but there’s also a lot of opportunity to think entirely differently about where we get our energy, where we get our food, how we live, how we think about travel. And it’s not like our world as we’ve structured it is some sort of perfect system that can’t bear being disturbed.
I live in Austin. I drive by these god-awful strip malls all the time. We can do a lot better than this. So I also feel this is a moment of tremendous opportunity, and I hope that we can seize that moment.
Jeff Schechtman: And yet, there are situations like you have experienced in Texas where we have to adapt to this. And yet, simple things like providing water breaks and safety for those working outdoors suddenly become a big deal.
Jeff Goodell: Yes. And just to be clear about what you’re talking about, during the height of the extreme heat here in Texas, a couple of weeks ago, Governor Abbott signed legislation prohibiting any local communities or counties or cities from passing any laws requiring shade and water breaks for construction workers. His rationale for that was that it was part of this larger bill about too much patchwork local legislation, and for economic growth, they needed to streamline state rules.
That was just the stated reason. Obviously, there were all kinds of other politics involved in this, and it’s really barbaric. The notion that giving workers shade and water breaks will somehow inhibit economic progress in a state like Texas is just insane. And it just shows how complicated the politics of all this is. 10 years ago, a lot of the conversation was about climate change and energy stuff that I participated in was all about economics.
It was like, “Oh, we can’t go to solar and wind because it’s too expensive, and we can’t do that. It’s just too expensive, and we can’t afford the subsidies.” Well, that’s all out the window now. Renewable power is in every place in the world for new builds, far cheaper than fossil fuels. And the economics are gone. But now we’re lodged in this culture war where burning fossil fuels has become something about being a real American and that climate change is some kind of system of belief.
And there’s been all this effort at undermining scientists and undermining institutions that support scientists. And that’s a much more difficult political kind of dilemma to deal with than the old, “It’s too expensive to solve this problem.”
Jeff Schechtman: It’s interesting that some of the fossil fuel companies, you mentioned ExxonMobil before, but some of these corporations are further ahead of realizing, A, the dangers and, B, the mitigation than some politicians are.
Jeff Goodell: Yes. Both the politicians and the oil and gas companies, there’s a range of actors. There are some who are definitely farther along and more progressive. I’ll point out a company called Occidental Petroleum here in Texas, which is a major oil and gas company. And they’re moving very aggressively into a technology called carbon capture and storage, where they pull CO2 out of the gas stream while they’re burning it for power, or they just pull it directly out of the air with what amount[s] to artificial trees that are becoming economically viable on some slow horizon.
And they’re really moving aggressively into trying to create what are essentially zero-emission fossil fuels, which is a whole other problem that we could talk about for half an hour. But at least they’re moving in the direction of [where] they totally acknowledge the problem. They’re saying, “We have a solution. We’re spending a lot of money on trying this solution. You may not like this solution, but we think it’s important. And we acknowledge the scale and risk of it.”
And then you have other companies that are just greenwashing. Shell, for example, made a bunch of commitments about carbon reductions and is rolling those back now and changing their tune as time goes on. And it’s very difficult to see how this will play out and what role these big oil and gas companies will have in this other than what they’ve always been trying to do, which is delay, delay, delay.
They all know that the fossil fuel transition is underway. The revolution is underway. It’s going to happen. Just like the movement away from whale oil happened in the 19th century. There’s no question where this is all going. The question is, how fast it goes and what role these big corporations play in it?
Jeff Schechtman: And are they just trying to buy time at this point?
Jeff Goodell: Yes. It really is that simple. They’re concerned about stranded assets, they’re concerned about all these billions and trillions of dollars that they’ve invested in pipelines and offshore drilling rigs and all the infrastructure that has been built out over a century to bring oil and gas and coal to the world. And the longer they can drag this out, the longer that they can reduce the billions of dollars of write-offs and losses that they have to face with this.
Think about what record companies thought about when digital music came along. Their whole business model is going away, and they know that. So what does anybody in that position want to do? There’s two scenarios. One is you jump towards the future technology as quickly as possible. And for cultural reasons and other reasons, very few companies are able to make that leap just because the mindset and the skills are very different. You don’t see very many oil and gas companies becoming major solar and wind and renewable energy companies because it’s just a very different mindset.
And the other thing you do is you try to drag it out, and you make this transition happen as slowly as possible so you can milk it as long as you can. And it’s really that simple.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent do you think we are going to have to rely on some technology, things like carbon capture, to fill in while we make this transition?
Jeff Goodell: Well, I think that there’s lots of technologies and carbon capture is its own problem. And the economics of it, to me, don’t make sense because it’s just cheaper to eliminate fossil fuels and rebuild with clean energy. And I think that carbon capture is largely a strategy to continue the burning, and more importantly, the social license of fossil fuels; this idea that they have a solution for this obvious problem of our world heating up the way it is.
And so there’s a lot of cultural reasons why they’re pushing carbon capture. I wrote about carbon capture 15 years ago, 20 years ago even. The coal industry was always talking about clean coal and how they’re going to capture the CO2 from coal and bury it underground, and coal was going to become this viable future in a world that takes global warming seriously. But it never happened, and it was too expensive, too complicated.
And I think the same thing is true now with carbon capture. We’ll certainly see deployment of it and development of it. A lot of companies like Occidental Petroleum are getting behind it, but the scale that would be necessary and the economics that would be necessary for it to really make a meaningful difference to the levels of CO2 emissions we have is a long, long, long way away. I think in 200 years we’re going to have machines that are basically modulating CO2 levels in the atmosphere. I think that’s certainly possible, but nothing in the near term to deal with this emergency that we’re facing right now.
Jeff Schechtman: Jeff Goodell, his new book is The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet. Jeff, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Jeff Goodell: Thank you for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.