By Joylette Portlock
July. Long known across the U.S. for fireworks, barbecues, and a desire to stay cool any way we can. Whether it’s air conditioning, swimming pools, beaches or popsicles, the dog days of summer are often reminders that as humans, our comfort depends on an experienced ambient temperature roughly somewhere between 59 and 77 degrees (Fahrenheit).
But what if, instead of 77, it’s a full 40 degrees more: 117 degrees, like it was in California on July 6? Or 105, like it was in Japan last week? Then, it’s more than an issue of comfort; our lives depend on finding a way to stay cool, and in fact more than a hundred people have perished in heat-related deaths globally already this year.
Life in this new age, the Anthropocene, is marked by many things, including a human-caused increase in global heat, commonly referred to as global warming, or climate change. Risk from heat (or wildfires, or floods) is no longer something we have to rely on the overwhelmingly strong scientific consensus about global warming to tell us; every year, climate change impacts are becoming more and more obvious to everyone, whether you have a degree in climate science or not.
Weather and climate are different. Weather is what happens on a day-to-day basis. Climate is the range of weather that we expect and consider normal (i.e., summer is hot) – but normal is changing.
We’re now up to over 400 consecutive warmer-than-average months and counting. Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s collections, which span more than 140 years, can help show these shifts in many ways. One of the most important things we can do is to make connections and show the relevance between the basic scientific principles underlying natural phenomena and the evidence all around us; between what’s happening globally and what’s happening locally.
The globe’s increasing heat is a result of fossil fuel use, food production, and our land use practices. We need energy and food, of course; but it’s critical that we recognize that the systems we impact also impact us. It’s not just our actions, but our interactions with the world around us that are the story. To understand what’s happening and improve our interactions with nature, we have to look at the big picture, and work to meet our needs in ways that minimize disruption to the overall system.
As summer heat waves get longer, more numerous, and more intense (and it seems the whole world is on fire, with deadly fires everywhere from California to Greece to inside the Arctic Circle) one connection is obvious: our need to be cool.
Joylette Portlock, Ph.D., is associate director of science and research at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. She is also executive director of Communitopia, a nonprofit focused on climate change communication, and holds many other roles in the community.