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The Edge Episode 25: The Heat with Jeff Goodell 

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Show Notes

Don’t let the term “climate change” mislead you. It’s true that our environment is changing in all sorts of ways as we continue to pollute and exploit and manipulate our planet. But even as we brace for more historic typhoons and biblical floods, there’s an invisible and pervasive force that is wreaking havoc on us all: heat. In this episode, we speak with environmental journalist Jeff Goodell about his latest book, The Heat Will Kill You First, the potentially lethal effects that rising temperatures will have on our lives and on our planet, and what we can do to prepare for it.

Further reading: 

This episode was written and hosted by Pat Joseph and Leah Worthington, and produced by Jonathan Davis. Art by Michiko Toki and original music by Mogli Maureal. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions.


LEAH WORTHINGTON: It’s official: 2023 was Earth’s hottest year since record keeping began, a mark destined to be broken again and again as our planet continues to warm. Of course, as the term “climate change” implies, our environment is changing in all sorts of ways as we continue to pollute and exploit and manipulate our planet. But even as we brace for more historic typhoons and biblical floods, there’s an invisible and pervasive force that is wreaking havoc on us all: heat.

Journalist and Berkeley alumnus Jeff Goodell has been reporting on the climate for more than 15 years—as a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine and in a series of highly regarded books about climate change. These include Big Coal, How to Cool the Climate, and The Water Will Come, a New York Times Critics Top Book of 2017 about rising sea levels. In his most recent book, The Heat Will Kill You First, he examines extreme heat—in some ways the most obvious but also overlooked aspect of climate change. Goodell’s book, which spent weeks on the bestseller list last summer, amid record-setting heat waves, begins with a story that brings home just how serious and deadly heat can be. 

Cal alumna Ellen Chung and her family perished on a day hike near their home in Mariposa, California in August 2021. Inspectors were perplexed by the deaths at first, but eventually settled on a cause: hyperthermia. They had all—mother, father, baby, and dog—died from the heat, which, on that particular day, reached 107 degrees F.

As Goodell writes, what happened wasn’t “just a consequence of bad luck or poor decision making in the wild…It was a tragedy that was shaped by our larger failure to reckon with the risks of life in a rapidly warming world, and with the nature of heat itself.” 


LEAH: This is The Edge, produced by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. I’m your host, Leah Worthington. In today’s episode, our editor in chief Pat Joseph is joined by author and journalist Jeff Goodell to discuss the nature of extreme heat and how we might come to terms with it. They originally spoke at the end of 2023, which, we recently learned, would turn out to be the hottest year on record.  On that note, just a heads up that this episode gets into some of the heavy realities surrounding heat and climate disaster. Alright, now to the episode.


PAT JOSEPH: So welcome to The Edge, Jeff Goodell.

JEFF GOODELL: Thank you for having me. Happy to be here.

PAT: Yeah. So first, I’d like to acknowledge that or recognize that your book, The Heat Will Kill You First, has been on the bestseller list, the New York Times I think you were there for two or three weeks, which seems like no, no mean feat for a book about climate change. What do you think explains that? 

JEFF: You know, I would like to think part of it has to do with my getting better at writing books about about climate, I would like to think that part of it has to do with more curiosity among more people, more interest in in the climate crisis, and what’s causing it, what the consequences are, just a general raising of awareness. And I think, then, also a large part of it was that, you know, we saw a summer of extreme heat waves, not only in the United States, but around the world. And heat was in the news. Virtually every day of the summer, certainly in places like Texas, where I live and in Phoenix and much of the South, as well as throughout Europe and China. And so you know heat was a big story this summer. 

PAT: So, your other books, Big Coal, The Water Will Come, How to Cool the Planet—you have other titles, but those are all related to the climate issue. And it’s interesting to me that you are now coming to heat, which seems like the most obvious consequence of climate change. And yet maybe it’s the one we talk about least explicitly.

JEFF: Yeah, that’s a great point. And a really true point, the irony of which didn’t escape me either. This book began, really, on a 115 degree day in Phoenix when I was there for a meeting, just happened to be there on a really hot day. And I had to walk like 20 blocks downtown from my hotel to the meeting. And by the time I made those 20 blocks, my heart was pounding. I was feeling a little dizzy. I was realizing, wow, this heat is brutal, and it’s dangerous. By that time, I had been a climate change journalist for 15 years, and, obviously, heat is not a secret. It’s, you know, the phrase is “global warming,” right? And yet I had never really thought about heat as a kind of active force or something that could kill you very quickly. And it came to me at that moment, like, “Wow, I don’t understand heat at all. I don’t understand the impact it has on our bodies.” And, to be honest, if you would have asked me on that day, what is heat… I would not have been able to tell you. I would have been able to talk about temperature changes, I would have been able to describe the difference between 75 degrees and 79 degrees. But to describe what heat was, or is, I wouldn’t have been able to do. Despite the fact that it was in the forefront of everything I’ve been thinking about for a decade. At that moment, I thought there’s a book in this.

PAT: Well, one of the striking things about the book is that, on the cover of the words “global warming” don’t appear. And I was wondering if that was purposeful?

JEFF: Yeah, well, yes. And no. The book certainly doesn’t shy away from talking about climate change. And, you know, The Heat Will Kill You First is a pretty dramatic title. In fact, there was a lot of debate about that. The book talks explicitly about climate change in great detail throughout the book. But global warming is a problematic phrase. I think a lot of the kind of misunderstanding about the scope and scale of what this climate crisis or planetary emergency or whatever phrase you want to use to describe this world that we’re in right now … “global warming” just sounds like better beach weather. I mean, it sounds like a nicer day. And, you know, that cuts directly against the idea that is inherent in my title, which is that heat is this act of force that, you know, can kill you very quickly. So, to have global warming on the cover, and in the subtitle maybe, would have been a little contradictory to the kind of more immediate and active message I was trying to communicate in the actual title of the book.

PAT: Well, let’s talk about something fundamental to the whole global warming challenge and what we’re trying to do as a species, which is to limit the rise in temperatures from pre-industrial levels by two degrees Celsius, something we’re almost certain to pass. Two degrees Celsius is, if I’m not mistaken, about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. 

JEFF: Correct. In any given day, the temperature can swing by ten degrees Fahrenheit, or at least five to seven degrees Fahrenheit, no big deal. That, to me, seems also kind of challenging to get across to people that that’s a significant change in temperature. 

It does, again, go to the heart of the difficulty of communicating about this, because when you say 2C. First of all, they’re in Celsius, which most people in America don’t know what that means anyway, so that’s an immediately alienating, you know, data point right there. And then if you take a moment to do, like you did, and translate it into Fahrenheit, 3.6 or 3.7, that again, sounds like, “Okay, so it’s 75 degrees, you know, in Berkeley today,  so you expect me to be concerned that it’ll be 78.7? I’m supposed to freak out about that? I’m supposed to reinvent my life, I’m supposed to change my politics because of that? That’s crazy. And it’s only when you understand that, first of all, these are global average temperatures that we’re talking about—and the way that how delicately balanced our sort of global climate system is and how delicately balanced many of these ecosystems and living systems are—that you can begin to appreciate that. And in my book, I talk about two examples that are very clear, straightforward examples of how small changes in temperature can make profound differences. And one of them had to do with a trip to Antarctica that I took during the reporting of this book. 

Antarctica looked stable. And only after, you know, a considerable amount of research and satellite data center, they realized that no, it’s not so stable. It has to do with the fact that the Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica, has risen by one degree Fahrenheit. And that one degree has allowed this ocean water to get underneath some of these ice sheets. And it’s just above the freezing point. And it’s allowing—it’s starting to melt these ice sheets from below. So this small change has now destabilized, you know, basically all of West Antarctica with enormous consequences for sea level rise in San Francisco, Berkeley, Bangladesh, Houston—I mean every coastal city in the world. I mean, if you think about it like a bathtub, if your bathtub, you know, holds four feet of water, and you put in four feet and one inch of water, it’s a big problem, right? So small changes can have enormous consequences. 

PAT: You mentioned this idea that the difference between, you know, 75 degrees in Berkeley and 79 degrees in Berkeley is no cause for enormous alarm. But one of the things your book is good at doing is showing, at the outer extremes, those three degrees are very meaningful. And Your book starts with a story, a very tragic story of, as it happens, a Berkeley alumna, I think her name is Ellen Chung, and she and her family perished. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about that story and why you started there.

JEFF: I wanted to start there, because one of the things that I really wanted to underscore in this book is, you know, a little bit what I talked about what I experienced in Phoenix is that, you know, heat is a deadly force that can kill you very quickly if you’re in the wrong circumstances. And it’s not just, you know, babies that are trapped in parked cars with the windows rolled up or outdoor workers who are working in the fields and exposed to extreme sunlight, or older people with weak hearts. It’s everyone. And the story of Ellen Chung and Jonathan Gerrish and their child is, I thought, emblematic of that. They were—she was in her mid 30s. He was in his early 40s. They lived in the Bay Area. During the pandemic, they decided like many people that they wanted a change of life. They could work from home and all that, and they want to live somewhere else. So they moved to the Sierra foothills near Mariposa, at the gateway to Yosemite. And they were both sort of outdoorsy types. They loved the idea of living closer to nature. They had a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter that they really wanted to bring up in a kind of natural environment. And they’ve been living there for, I don’t know, eight months or something, nine months and so, like many people, you know, exploring the area around where they lived. They had gone on and done a number of hikes and one day, in the summer of 2021, they decided they wanted to hike, to go for this seven-mile hike on a summer, July summer day. Gerrish talked to his brother who is an outdoor guide in Scotland, lots of experience dealing with outdoor adventure and was a paramedic and all, very well educated about the risks of outdoors. And his brother said to him, the night before, “It’s gonna be really hot tomorrow. Be careful.” And Gerrish said, “I know, I know, I know. We’re going to start really early. We’re going to, you know, it’s only a seven-mile hike. We’ll be back by noon. It’ll be fine.” So they started out in the morning and the trailhead was only a mile from their house, and they hiked downhill to the Merced River, a very lovely river that comes out of Yosemite and cuts through the valley. They got down to the bottom of the river around 10:30. They took some selfies they sent to their friends. They played around on the river. And then they decided around 11 o’clock that it was time to hike out. And they had a two-and-a-half mile hike that was basically straight up switchbacks on a southern exposed slope, which they didn’t know ahead of time, but had basically no shade because there had been wildfires there the year before. And they started up that slope at around 11 o’clock. The temperature was something over—around 100 degrees. And no one knows exactly what happened, but the upshot of it is that they didn’t come home that night. The next morning, their friends checked in on them, became concerned—what happened? They called the sheriff’s department; they sent out a search party. And the entire family, their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter and their dog—were all dead on the trail about halfway up. And at first, the sheriffs and the other investigators didn’t know what happened. They thought, “What is this, some kind of terrible family suicide thing?” That was one theory. Another theory was, there’s a lot of abandoned mines there—did they come across an abandoned mine and get poisoned by carbon monoxide coming out of the mine? And none of those things were true. And after a couple of weeks of investigation, they realized that they all died of heatstroke as they were climbing this mountain on this hot day. And it was obviously a real tragedy. But it was a real tragedy in the sense that it was a great example of how dangerous heat can be if you’re not prepared for it, if you don’t understand what the symptoms of heatstroke are, and if you don’t know what to do when you’re in those circumstances. 

PAT: I tend to think of exposure deaths more in terms of hypothermia. And the idea that hyperthermia would be something to be concerned about outside of Death Valley and other places where you’re going and you know, certainly that that’s going to be a concern, it’s not something that crosses my mind. Especially not in the foothills of California. Do we have statistics on whether extreme cold or extreme heat kills more people?

JEFF: Well, that’s a very controversial subject. And it’s a little bit like comparing apples to oranges because there’s different definitions of extreme cold and extreme heat. The basic answer is that a lot of people tell you that cold kills more than heat, something like eight times more people, but it’s not a really fair comparison because heat kills in a very immediate, direct, and kind of fast way, right? You know, like, you know, heatstroke happens and you survive it or you don’t. A lot of the cold deaths are related to influenza and things like that—they can take months. The definition of a cold day is different than a hot day. So it depends on, like, what you set your baseline average of. Like, if you say everything above, like 75 is extreme heat, it’s different than saying everything above 95 is extreme heat. 

As our planet warms, we know there’s going to be an extreme escalation in heat deaths. And the last thing I would add to that is that heat mortality is widely underestimated. Heat is not like, you know, a gun where if you are killed by a gun, you have a gunshot wound, because it’s very clear, this is what killed this person. With heat, you know, it’s often a heart attack because your heart gives out because your heart is so stressed. Okay, well, was your air conditioner broken? Or his or her air conditioner broken? Had it been over 105 degrees in her or his or her apartment for three days? If you don’t do that kind of contextual investigation, which many, you know, public health agencies and others don’t have the resources to do, then you just say, “Oh, this person died of a heart attack,” and it’s not counted as a heat death. So these numbers are very complicated. 


PAT: You raised the specter—for some reason, this stuck with me, well not for some reason, because it’s frightening—the idea of a city like Phoenix in a power outage during a heatwave. We think of ourselves as pretty well-equipped to deal with heat because of the ubiquity of air conditioning, at least in the United States and other parts of the developed world, so-called. But we’re really susceptible, at those kinds of temperatures, aren’t we, to mass deaths?

JEFF: So the idea of a mass mortality event related to heat and a power failure was not something that I had given any thought to. I was talking to an infrastructure expert in Phoenix while I was reporting the book, and he talked about, ], our buildings are designed to work with air conditioning. And, you know, there’s been a lot of efforts made for efficiency and things like that, to seal up windows, to make sure that there’s no leakage, no natural kind of ventilation. And all those things are, are well and good, if the air conditioning is functioning and working well, but if that air conditioning fails, then all of a sudden these buildings have no ventilation. They become kind of convection ovens, and they become death traps. And interestingly, there was a really big study that looked at what would happen in a place like Phoenix if there were a 48-hour power outage during a heatwave, which they defined as being above 112 degrees. And these public health officials estimated—and this is mind blowing, but true—that half of the population of Maricopa County, about 380,000 people, would wind up in the emergency room. And there would be more than 13,000 deaths in 48 hours. You know, we have this false notion that what’s the big deal about heat? You got air conditioning. We’re fine. It’s just too bad you have to stay inside. It’s a bummer, but you’re fine. Well, you know, unless you have battery backups in your building, and at your house, and you can be sure that that air conditioning is really going to work, you’re still at extreme risk. And during these heat waves, of course, is when the grid is most strained because everybody’s cranking up their air conditioning. 

PAT: And, of course, there are huge parts of the world where air conditioning is not a fact of life. And for the animal kingdom, right? They’re not—they have other ways to adapt. But as I understand it, the heat is rising so rapidly, that many species are having a difficult time adapting.

JEFF: Right. I mean, the mere fact that, you know, we talk about air conditioning as some kind of a solution to extreme heat is emblematic of how privileged we are. Because, you know, as you point out, there are literally billions of people on the planet who do not have access to air conditioning, and for all intents and purposes, will not have access to air conditioning anytime soon. But it’s also true, as you said, you know, it’s not just about human beings. All living things have, you know, these thermal comfort zones, or what I call in the book, this “Goldilocks zone” where they can, you know, they’ve lived in for their evolutionary history, and they are able to thrive in this range of temperatures. And we humans have it. And so do every other living thing, from monarch butterflies to redwood trees to coral reefs. And what living things do when their temperature changes too much is they move, right? Things like mosquitoes and bats and birds and, in many cases, lots of marine creatures and fish, are able to move to different places and different climates that are more comfortable But a lot of things can’t. And those things that can’t, if the temperatures of the world that they’re stuck in are too extreme, they die. A redwood tree can’t just, you know, pull up its roots and march north to cooler… a cooler climate. When the temperature changes too fast, they die. 

We’re not going to air condition the forests. And we’re not going to air condition the wheat fields where the food that we eat grows and the cornfields and wherever the other all the other plants and vegetables that are important to our survival thrive. So it’s going to have a big impact on our food supply, also. And yes, there are things that we can do—we can move crops to different places, and we can engineer crops to deal with different temperatures. But those are all bigger challenges than they seem at first. And it’s not just a simple, you know, well, we’ll just plant all the corn in Iowa—we’ll plant that up in Canada, and we’ll continue on our merry way. Right? 

PAT: Yeah, it sounds so simple. One of the things that was a surprise in your book was you pointed out that people are not migrating to cooler climates. At least in the United States, we’re going to places like Tempe and Las Vegas and Fort Myers, Florida, and.. but why? Why do you think people are moving to the hot zones?

JEFF: Well, you know, human migration especially, is a very complicated subject. People move for all kinds of reasons. I am a great example of it, you know, I grew up in the Bay Area, went to Berkeley—in my mind, the perfect climate. I had a great education at Berkeley, but going to a place like that makes you climate-stupid, in a way because it’s so lovely, so much of the time.

And so I moved to the East Coast. I lived there in New York and upstate New York for a while. But then I moved four years ago to Austin, which is the Belly of the Beast, climate-wise. You know, it’s really hot, we’ve had 60 days over 100 degrees here this summer. It has been brutal. We have droughts, we have sea level rise in Houston, we have, you know, invasion of new insects and diseases in the waterways. It really makes no sense from a migration point of view, why I would end up here, but I ended up here because I fell in love with a woman who has a job here, and I wanted to be with her. And so that was more important to me than anything. 

But, you know, people come to places because the real estate is cheaper, and they can buy a house. And also people like warmer weather, right? But there’s also, now this is all changing. There’s a big difference between being in Austin, when it’s 95 degrees—as it is today—and 115 degrees. And as we move towards these higher limits, I can tell you just anecdotally, the number of people who’ve said, “I am not living through another summer like this here. I don’t care about my job or whatever. I’m outta here,” is changing. So I think there is a kind of what I think is a migration lag with this stuff. Our world is changing so fast that people aren’t aware that when they move to Phoenix or Austin, they’re moving to a place that is a hellhole for three or four months of the year. And you have to live like a vampire during the summer. You know, you’re indoors during the middle all day. You want to walk your dog, you got to do it at 5am or 11pm. You know, it’s just, you can function if you’re fortunate and wealthy enough to, you know, have a house where you can have air conditioning and all that. But is that how you want to live? 


PAT: You’ve been reporting on this topic for a long time. Just personally, psychically, I mean, is it hard? Is it hard to continue focusing on this dire situation that we’re in and the impact it’s having on the natural world?

JEFF: It is, and, you know, I’m often asked some version of that question of like, you know, why are you not an alcoholic living in your basement scrawling on the wall with crayons? Because when you write about and think about climate change and what’s happening in our natural world, you run up against, I mean, you’re constantly dealing with the idea of loss and of changes and of questions about accountability for what we have done to, not just to each other, but to other creatures on this planet and other living things on this planet, and the enormous impact that literally, you know, a century of fossil fuel development has, has wrought on on this planet and to all living things. Obviously, it’s brought a lot of progress and, you know, benefits with it. Civilized life as we know it today, and that we all enjoy is unthinkable without, you know, the development of fossil fuels. But for me, dealing with it every day, I find it inspiring because I meet people every day, who are changing their lives, devoting their lives to fighting for what they love, whether it’s, you know, to save the redwood trees or to, you know, install more solar panels or battery storage, or who are thinking about this enormous transition and really thinking about, can we use this to, you know, build a better world? 

And just one other thing that I’ll add to this, which is a slightly odd, but also very powerful thing for me, is that understanding loss and understanding how fast our world is changing, in an odd way, makes it more vivid for me. When I walk on Santa Cruz beach, you know, I used to surf there, and I go to the beach there, and I look at the cliffs there, and I think about the coastline there. I know that it’s going to be very, very different. And my kids are going to not see the same coast. And, and it gives all of this—our world—a kind of temporalness that is both tragic, but also incredibly beautiful and vivid. And so I feel like understanding the scale of what we’re doing, and the changes that are happening has weirdly improved my life because I’m not sleepwalking through it. I’m paying attention because it’s going to be very different—the next time I go to Santa Cruz is going to be different. And it’s going to be very different in 50 years when my kids go to Santa Cruz. And so looking at this world and saying, okay. It just brings in an immediacy and an urgency and a kind of, you know, beauty to it all that I find very inspiring.

PAT: That’s a great answer. And increasingly I’ve kind of come to that conclusion too—having kids, looking at their lives, and thinking, you know, on the one hand, kind of grieving for what they’re going to miss. But, just as you say, well, then appreciate it right now. You know, I mean, work like hell to change it. But also just appreciate what you’ve got.

I did want to ask about—because I also wrote about it—geoengineering. So, a glib thing to say, we know how to cool the planet. And you have a book called How to Cool the Planet. Why don’t we do that? And I know it’s not that simple. And I, just today, in the New York Times, I read about someone talking about fertilizing the ocean to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. And I think, in my case, I wrote about geoengineering with sulfates in the stratosphere. Do you put any hopes in that kind of solution?

JEFF: Well, geoengineering is such a complicated subject. On one level, it’s, you know, the nightmare Frankenstein solution that, you know, we humans have proven pretty well, that we’re bad at managing the planet and thinking that we understand things that we don’t really know and messing with things that we don’t understand and screwing them up. Whether it’s like, you know, bringing one species in—cane toads in, you know, the classic example, right? On the other hand, you know, geoengineering, especially the aerosol sulfate engineering, you know, is a tool that could be useful. And that, you know, we pretty much know because of, it’s basically about mimicking volcanoes. And there’s a lot of complexity in this too. But scientists basically know that big volcanic eruptions that put these particulates into the stratosphere, like Mount Pinatubo, most famously, do have a cooling effect. And then, you know, so it’s probably likely that if we developed a system that put some relatively small amount of particulates into the stratosphere, that they would have a cooling effect, is a probably workable thing. And it then brings up questions of ok, so how does it change the atmospheric dynamics? Who’s it really cooling? What regions get more cooling than others? How does it change monsoon terns? There’s so much complexity to all of this. And I fear, as many people do, that it will be seen as a technofix. That is like, “oh, let’s just put, you know, cool the planet by getting a bunch of high altitude aircrafts and throwing sulfate particles in the stratosphere, and then we’ll be fine.” And of course, we won’t be fine. However, I’m not aligned with people who say, we should never talk about this, we should never think about this, we should not allow any kind of research. There was an attempt by some scientists that I know pretty well to do a small-scale balloon that would put a very small amount of particulates into the stratosphere.  It was like an attempt to do a very small-scale, real world experiment that would just say, almost kind of validate the models kind of way. And there was enormous pushback about that, that was like, if you even start doing anything in the real world, it’s a slippery slope, and, you know, within five years, we’ll have, you know, aircraft flying around, you know, geoengineering our planet, turning it into Franken-planet, and, you know, it’ll be a nightmare. And that very well could happen. But I also think that, you know, understanding more about the science of this—how it really works, what the real effects will be—that knowledge is a good thing. And so I’m not in the camp that really thinks that we should prohibit any research on this and that we shouldn’t be talking about it and it’s a moral failure to even discuss it. I hope we never use it. And I hope we don’t use it. But the idea that we should just, you know, kind of turn away from it scientifically, and there’s nothing to learn from any kind of research into it, I think is a flawed and equally dangerous idea.

PAT: Obviously, the thing we need to do is wean ourselves off, very quickly, from fossil fuels. But in terms of just making life more livable, there are other things I’ve read about, for example, white roofs, to combat the heat island effect, micro-forests seem to be a thing that people are talking a lot about. Do any of these kinds of, I won’t call them solutions, but ameliorations seem hopeful to you?

JEFF: Yes, for sure. I mean, you know, I think that, you know, if you want to focus on heat for a moment that, from a human point of view, the biggest problem with heat is in cities, because of the sort of heat island effect—the way that, you know, the concrete and asphalt magnifies heat in cities. And there’s a lot of ways of making cities cooler places. You know, developing more green space, planting more trees, more shade structures, you know. I mean, making a life more livable, restricting automobiles from inner city areas, and turning these streets into greenways, that allow more nature into cities and would have an enormous cooling effect, as well as a sort of psychological impact of, you know, connection with nature as well as biodiversity and all those kinds of things. I mean, I think that we can use this crisis and these changes that we have to make to make better places. You know, every time I drive by a strip mall here in Austin, I’m like, “Oh, my god, what a nightmare.” Wouldn’t it be great to just knock this thing down and create, if you want, you know, other kinds of storefronts, but doing it in an entirely different way? 

And we know how to build buildings and structures without air conditioning—using natural ventilation. I just had dinner the other night with one of the world’s top architects who has done many amazing buildings throughout the world. And I said to him, I said, you know, “Don’t you know how to build buildings that don’t need air conditioning now?” I mean, they used to do it in Iraq and Iran in the 15th century, and they can make ice without, you know, in the 16th century by directing water underground over cool pools of water and redirecting and things like that. “I mean, can’t you do that? Isn’t it possible for you to build these magnificent urban structures without having to build this mechanical air conditioning stuff?” And he said, “Of course! I could do that on every building I do. That’s not a challenge at all.” The problem is all of his clients demand that it always be 71 degrees in their building. And so as he pointed out to me, you know, we’re addicted to comfort. You know, we’re addicted to the idea that it shall always be 71 degrees in any building that I inhabit. And that’s my kind of divine right as a modern person. So a lot of this stuff is so psychological. It’s not, it’s not just an engineering issue.

PAT: The funny thing about that is having lived with air conditioning, I don’t think anybody’s ever happy with what the temperature is. It’s either too cold or too warm for someone. And, and yeah, it’s… so maybe it’s, maybe we think we like it more than we actually do. 

JEFF: Well, you know, it’s just as a footnote that you may or may not find of interest. But when I was researching air conditioning for the chapter about that in my book, I came across a small scale study that was looking at what seemed like a not so interesting question, which is, what temperature and humidity do people want to set their houses at? You know, what is, what is the norm that people want to set their—that they find the ideal climate? And this researcher looked at like several thousand people in five or six cities around the world, and basically figured out that it’s about 71 degrees and a kind of low humidity. But then he did the interesting step of saying, “Okay, so what climate in the natural world is this most like? So what are people trying to recreate in their homes, if you looked at the analog in nature?” And the best analog for what people are trying to recreate in their homes is the Rift Valley in Africa—where humans evolved. So basically, by this complex, mechanical, clanking, energy-intensive thing that we’re doing, pumping air in and out of our houses, we’re trying to recreate the world that we evolved in, in our homes. And I thought that was just incredibly fascinating on all kinds of levels.

PAT: Well, Jeff, it’s really been a pleasure talking to you. And I wish you the best of luck with the book when it comes out in paperback. I’m sure it’ll hit the bestseller list again, and hopefully it won’t be so hot.

JEFF: I hope so too.


LEAH: This is The Edge, brought to you by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. I’m Leah Worthington. This episode was produced by Jonathan Davis, with support from Pat Joseph. Special thanks to Jeff Goodell. Original music by Mogli Maureal. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions.


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