Biking down Weybosset Street in downtown Providence on an unseasonably warm morning the other day, one man called to another across the street, “What’s better than this?” His friend shouted back, “Nothing is better!”
But as much as we have enjoyed these August-like days stretching into September, we are paying a cost.
This month, T.F. Green Airport set a record for the number of days over the 80 degrees heat index mark since data began to be consistently kept in 1948. This year we’ve had 85 days -- nearly three months -- with a heat index over 80 degrees, a stunning figure for New England.
How unusual is that? In the 1950s and 1960s when I was a kid, an average summer in Rhode Island had just 54 days when the heat index passed 80. The number has increased each decade -- to 60 days in the 1970s and 1980s; 64 days in the 1990s and 2000s; and 71 days in 2010-2014. That’s an extra 2.5 weeks of hot days.
Yes, there’s always variability. There are still occasional cool years, as in 2009 when there were just over 40 days above 80. But these have become far less common.
Is the rise just the result of urban growth and the “heat island effect” around the airport? No. Population has been stagnant and even shrinking in the past decades.
Warwick’s population was 83,000 in 1970, and is 82,000 today. The population of Rhode Island has been flat since the 1990 census.
But just as obesity can cause irreversible damage to the human body, such as diabetes and heart disease, burning fossil fuels too fast is bringing a series of illnesses that cannot be stopped. For years, the oceans have been absorbing much of the extra heat and carbon dioxide we’ve dumped into the atmosphere from fossil fuels. The oceans are expanding as a result, rising 10 inches on the Newport Tide Gauge since 1930.
As a result of absorbing all that carbon dioxide, oceans are becoming more acidic, threatening coral reefs and many life forms at the bottom of marine food chains. Fishing and farming are becoming unpredictable in Rhode Island. Ask any local fisherman, and he will tell you that Rhode Island lobsters have gone to Maine.
There is much more at stake. Greg Wellenius and his colleagues at Brown University’s School of Public Health have shown that hospital admissions begin to skyrocket once the heat index gets above 75 degrees. Thousands more of us will be dangerously ill in coming decades, and health-care costs will soar. Lyme disease and West Nile virus are among those ailments expected to expand as temperatures rise. Older people, children, minorities and the poor are especially vulnerable to heat waves and heat-related diseases. Now that we know, we must address this injustice.
There is very much we can still do. The tide is turning, as more people perceive that things are changing, and conclude that we need solutions on the scale of the problem.
We need a wartime-level mobilization to drive conservation and efficiency and make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable fuels.
Rhode Island is the perfect place to start an American Sustainability Revolution. We have 400 miles of coastline, making us extremely vulnerable to rising seas. We have no fossil fuel reserves, so virtually all the $3.7 billion a year we spend on fossil energy pours out of the state. We have some visionary politicians and a coherent community of energy and environmental specialists; we love our beaches, bays, rivers and ponds.
Sure, we like these summer days, but not at a price we cannot afford -- not if it means more sick people, a Bay that has become overheated, cities that are almost unlivable in heat waves, long waits at the emergency room, and invasive insect and animal species coming up from the South.
That is the secret price tag coming at the end of our long hot summer. For the sake of ourselves, the poor and our kids, we need to act now.
This was originally published by the Providence Journal.