You probably heard it on the radio, read it in the newspaper or saw a post on Instagram at some point over the past few months: 2023 was the hottest summer ever recorded in human history. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Sept. 14 report, June to August, the period considered the meteorological summer of the Northern Hemisphere, was .41 F (.23 C) warmer than any other summer since 1880, and 2.1 F (1.2 C) warmer than the average summer between 1951 and 1980. These seemingly slight temperature increases did not go unfelt: approximately 190 million Americans were placed under heat alerts, according to the National Weather Service.
But what exactly is heat, and why is it so destructive?
Prior to starting his most recent book, climate journalist and now-seasoned heat expert Jeff Goodell found himself asking the same question. During a public lecture at UC Santa Barbara’s Campbell Hall on Oct. 17, Goodell remarked that a particularly grueling fifteen-block walk in Phoenix changed the way he understood heat by prompting his realization that “heat is really dangerous.”
“If you would have asked me that morning, ‘What is heat?’” Goodell said, “I would have said, ‘Well, heat is temperature.’ But, of course, heat is not temperature.”
In both the lecture and the prologue of his book, Goodell offers a succinct way to think about heat in the context of anthropogenic climate change. “Heat is the engine of planetary chaos,” he said.
UCSB Arts and Lectures hosted Goodell as the first of their four-part “Earth, Air, Fire, Water” public lecture series aiming to highlight voices in environmentalism. Goodell spoke about his newest book, which was appropriately named “The Heat Will Kill You First” for its mid-July release. Although Goodell had no exceptional publishing foresight that this would be the hottest summer on record, he states that, because climate models have predicted global warming for decades, “it was a good bet that the summer the book came out, whatever summer that would be, was going to be hot.” The lecture was followed by an opportunity for audience members to get their copies of the book signed.
Goodell, a native Californian now living in Austin, Texas, has been among the most notable voices in environmental journalism for over 20 years. He has written for numerous publications, including the New York Times and Rolling Stone, where he is a contributing editor. He has appeared as a climate commentator on NPR, CNN and the Oprah Winfrey Show, among many others.
Additionally, Goodell is the author of six books including “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World” which was a New York Times Critics Top Book in 2017. Although he took what he calls a “circuitous path,” over the years working as a blackjack dealer, janitor and professional motorcycle racer, to where he is today, he found his calling as an environmental journalist and refers to climate change as “the most important story of our time.”
In addition to the talk on Tuesday evening, Goodell also spoke to approximately five hundred environmental studies students on Tuesday morning. Speaking to the ENVS 1 class, Goodell explained that, even after he understood the concept of heat, he faced another challenge: “How do you write about it? How do you take this invisible thing, a general thermodynamic force, and turn it into a book that people will care about?” In both conversations, Goodell referred to the challenge of striking the delicate balance between instilling fear and inspiring hope in climate communications.
“I think of my job as a journalist to tell the truth,” said Goodell, “and to tell a story that will move you … yes, there are scary things in this and that’s because what’s happening in our world is really scary.”
While talking about the title Goodell explained how his editors were initially apprehensive about giving readers such a “scary” first impression. “One of the problems with talking about climate change is that it seems like it’s something that happens far away to other people at other times like future generations and that it’s not something that really affects us right now,” Goodell said. “The point of this title was to say that it can kill you.”
What humanity has to come to terms with, Goodell said, is that our age of existence within “Goldilocks temperature,” the regions that are not too hot and not too cold but just right to support the human species, has come to end. “We’re moving into a planet that is not only going to be hotter, there’s going to be wetter places, drier places, unpredictable changes,” he said.
Nevertheless, Goodell addressed another question he gets frequently: “Are we doomed?” To which he said no.
According to Goodell, our acceptance of this “new normal” is crucial — we cannot stop what’s imminent, but we are in control of changing all that we can. And in order to do that, the only thing that’s going to stop the rising of CO2 levels is our shifting reliance on fossil fuels.
Goodell asserted that he disagreed with the common notion of a climate “tipping point,” saying that he feels it is the wrong way to think about climate change.
“Every molecule we put into the atmosphere makes it a little bit hotter, every molecule we keep out of the atmosphere prevents it from warming that much,” said Goodell. “There’s better and worse scenarios, but there’s no tipping point.”
Another question Goodell said that he gets a lot is “What can I do to help fight climate change?” Goodell told the audience to “do what you are good at.” Whether that is political activism, scientific research, financial number-crunching, city planning or — like those found in “The Heat Will Kill You First” — telling powerful stories that motivate people to care, everyone has their own set of skills that can be put to good use.
“This story is just beginning,” Goodell says. “We’re not even at chapter 1 yet.”
A version of this article appeared on p. 11 of the Oct. 26, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.