Hot Enough for You?

More record-breaking temperatures, more extreme heat. Telling ourselves we can adapt is just wishful thinking

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Eric Thayer / Reuters

Coney Island in New York on June 30, 2012

When I lived in Texas I was fascinated by all the different ways people had of greeting one another. The one-finger hi-dy. A tip of the gimme cap. The Longhorn hook. And all through those six-month summers: Hot enough for ya?

It is no longer a laughable greeting. I am waiting, desperately, for the moment when we collectively ask ourselves: Hot enough yet? In June, we saw the smashing of heat records in more than a dozen states. Since January, 21,402 daily temperature records have been set. A severe and deadly thunderstorm left at least 3 million people from Indiana to Virginia without power for days — as temperatures continued to hit triple digits. In one of the hottest places in the country, Hill City, Kans., the heat reached 115 degrees; farmers burned their hands on hot tools and fainted in fields. The heat also had devastating consequences for crops and cattle.

(PHOTOS: Extreme Heat: 10 Locations with Tough Temperatures)

Extreme temperatures are feeding monstrous events like floods and fires. A swath of the West is incinerating itself: eight fires burned in Utah; 244 sq. mi. are blazing in Montana; 1,000 acres were scorched in Idaho; and a two-mile wall of flame burned its way down the backside of a Colorado ridge, becoming the largest fire in the history of that state. These are hellish, deadly fires — and there will be more and more of them.

What kind of record smashing will it take for people to understand that we have entered a period of accelerated global warming and must demand action? We are well into the presidential campaign season, and neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama has seriously addressed this urgent issue. In fact, Romney has been downright cynical, and Obama has been negligent. We, the people, are letting them off the hook. It is time for voters to demand a plan of action.

(MORE: How Global Warming Fell Off the National Agenda)

Already, my own children, in their 20s, have no idea what summer used to be like. How, on the coast of Rhode Island a mere 25 years ago, we wore heavy sweaters at night, well into July — and not because the air-conditioning was turned up. No one needed it then. The climate I grew up in is gone. My children have another baseline expectation of the weather — but that, too, will shift by the time their children are in their teens. And it will shift for the worse.

We tell ourselves we can adapt to long periods of 100-degree heat. But who are we kidding? What makes us think rising temperatures are simply going to stabilize at a tolerable level? Wishful thinking, only. What we are seeing is only the beginning of climate chaos to come.

(MORE: When Grownups Bully Climate Scientists)

Americans can rise to the challenge as they have before. The CEO of ExxonMobil (who will soon figure out that he shouldn’t be in the oil and gas business but in the energy business) was half-correct when he said we have an “engineering problem” — though he was cynical in his disregard of the urgent need for a solution. We’re terrific at engineering solutions, but we must have a serious national conversation, beginning in our highest office, about what is at stake and what can be done to stop the pollution while we work on solutions. Only then can true leadership arise. We must demand honesty before it is too late.

MORE: Seven Hot-Weather Survival Tips for the Whole Family