Heat Waves — In Red and Black | Coronavirus and climate crisis: a crosswalk

William Rau


Parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are spooky. The surge of COVID patients pushed hospitals to the breaking point in New York and required refrigerated meat trucks to store bodies.

It may yet overwhelm hospitals in states now rejecting scientific guidelines for limiting the virus’ spread. Hospitals in Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, etc., might yet be overrun as COVID-denying governors open their economies and let loose a stealthy killer.

A dead-on crosswalk: refrigerated meat trucks were also used to store bodies during the 1995, four-day Chicago heat wave when over 700 people died.

The pandemic has also caused shortages in meat and produce. UN authorities have a bigger worry: a coming rise of Third World famine. Meanwhile, quarantines and social distancing have shuttered our economy with mass unemployment unleashing widespread suffering. The deepening inequalities enveloping the American Dream in shadows are now sovereign. Billionaires in their private jets fly into Jackson Hole to hide out in contagion-free, mountain villas, some with $50,000 ventilators, while city poor die in hospital corridors, their final stop a pauper’s mass grave at Hart Island, New York.

Week-long heat waves – a 100% certainty by the 2030s – will have similar impacts, particularly in the South and Midwest. Extreme heat waves will overwhelm our emergency rooms, not after a month, like COVID, but within two or three days.

Climate change, scientists predict, will eventually result in large-scale crop failures due to unrelenting, crop-withering heat. Skyrocketing food prices will lead to hunger for many and famine for others if food is not available at any price. Illinoisans should worry because we import over 95% of the food we eat while nearly all of our agricultural bounty is exported or not fit for consumption.

If the global food chain breaks, Illinois will bear a higher cost than states with mostly local and climate-adapted food sources. We should also study the Irish potato famine. When multiple potato crops failed in 1840s, over one million Irish starved while large estate owners were exporting wheat to England.

If there is a break in the food chain providing us with our daily bread, do you think Illinois farmers will stop exporting corn and beans because their neighbors are going hungry?

Finally, consider those lively summer festivals that pack crowds into our streets. The pandemic has shuttered them. Do you think a two-week-long heat wave will be any kinder, or will people self-quarantine?

There are ways to minimize such potentially severe consequences of global warming just as it would have been possible to curtail COVID if in January, like South Korea, we had responded aggressively. Thus, in the next columns I will begin presenting a number of solutions to problems raised above.

Finally, if you ever granted credibility to climate denialists, consider this observation. The same interests financing climate denialism now finance virus denialism. In Paul Krugman’s words, they want you to “die for the DOW.”

In fact, they would damage the DOW because dead people don’t buy things.

William Rau is Illinois State University emeritus professor of sociology.

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