One heat wave was a sweltering annoyance for most of those who went through it. The other contributed to people attacking and killing each other.
Blistering temperatures experienced by more than 150 million Americans last weekend were a factor in the deaths of six people and led to a poor air quality advisory for parts of Los Angeles. But aside from some sporting event cancelations and power outages, life largely continued as usual even with temperatures climbing into the triple digits.
Compare that to India’s heat wave and drought earlier this summer, during which police had to guard water deliveries from rioters. A water tanker driver was beaten up, one man stabbed six people, and a 33-year-old named D Anand Babu died after being attacked with logs and "hacked with deadly weapons." He’d reportedly confronted an older man and his three sons for taking large amounts of water from a public tap.
That heat-related brutality seems shocking, but climate change could make it more common. A violence researcher contacted by VICE, Iowa State University’s Andreas Miles-Novelo, suggests that the difference between the outcomes of each heat wave comes down to the U.S. being in a temperate climate and having more abundant natural resources. He warns that as rising global temperatures make extreme events and conditions more common, not even America's vast environmental privilege will make its citizens immune from violence.
"It’s not about civilized or uncivilized," said Miles-Novelo, who is co-author on a paper from earlier this year that reviewed years of academic research on the link between severe weather and aggressive behavior. "We are very used to taking as much water from the tap as we want. That’s not going to be the case probably in 20 years."
Summers are already much more intense than they were decades ago. Back in the 1960s, the U.S. experienced roughly two heat waves per year. By the 2010s that had risen to six per year. Last weekend, one-day heat records were broken in at least six places across the U.S.—including a scorching temperature of 99° F at JFK Airport in New York on Saturday, the highest mark ever recorded for that date. This week Belgium and the Netherlands recorded their highest-ever temperatures; on Thursday it was an incredible 108° F in Paris.
Events like this show how the climate crisis is shattering the baseline we use to evaluate what is normal and extreme. "It means that what used to be extraordinary can often become routine, a regular occurrence," said Scott Power, head of climate research at the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology.
Power recently co-published a paper in Nature Climate Change calculating that if humans continue to trash the atmosphere at current rates, 58 percent of the Earth’s surface could experience new heat records every single year. These sweltering temperatures will not be spread evenly or fairly. The frequency of records being broken rises to 67 percent in poor and vulnerable countries—places like India that are already exposed to dangerously high heat.
"Most of the least developed countries and nearly all of the small island developing states reside at lower latitudes than do developed countries," Power said. "We project that they’ll experience unprecedented conditions more often."
His paper grimly predicts that "the more extreme these events, the greater the potential to push ecosystems and communities beyond their ability to cope."
But it would be wrong to say that less developed areas of the world most heavily battered by climate change are also uniquely suited to violence. Numerous studies over the years have shown a link between high temperatures and aggressive behavior in wealthy countries, whether that’s armed assaults against bus drivers in Vancouver, Canada, going up in hotter summer months or higher rates of physical assaults during sizzling weather in Minneapolis—though there’s no evidence, at least not yet, that the recent heat wave contributed to a spike in U.S. crime or violence.
Miles-Novelo compares the effect of heat on the human brain to the experience of being "hangry." "You’re irritable and your body is trying to respond to its discomfort. That’s one way to conceptualize this," he said.
"Imagine the city of Miami goes underwater. More than 2 million people live in Miami-Dade County. That’s not going to go well if they’re not prepared."
But the larger issue he says we should all be concerned with is that severe environmental conditions can force people or groups into violent conflict over scarce resources. This was evident in the deadly fights over water during India’s recent heat wave and drought—and also at India’s eastern border, where hundreds of Bangladeshis fleeing the impacts of poverty and climate change have been labelled as "intruders" by news outlets and killed by armed guards in recent years.
It's these macro trends, not the individual spikes of heat-related violence, that should really worry us. Miles-Novelo thinks climate change–caused resource scarcity is at least partially to blame for what’s happening right now at the U.S. border, where Central American migrants who’ve been battered by relentless droughts and urban violence are locked up in overcrowded detention centers.
And as our planet continues to burn, the U.S. could start to feel the impact within its own borders. "This isn’t just people from other countries," Miles-Novelo said. "Imagine the city of Miami goes underwater. More than 2 million people live in Miami-Dade County. That’s not going to go well if they’re not prepared."
Because of the warming we’re already locked into, the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events will continue to grow for the next decade or two, no matter how successful we are at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, according to Power’s research. Even if we’re successful at achieving the climate goals agreed to at the Paris climate conference, those events might not plateau at a more predictable level until later in the century.
This is just one example of why the world is likely to get hotter, less stable, and increasingly violent for the foreseeable future.
"How do we deal with damage that we have caused, even damage that we can’t see right now?" Miles-Novelo said. "I think that’s the next big conversation that we need to have."
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Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.