Photo Essay on Global Heat Waves Documents ‘Inequity at the Boiling Point’
Athens. Houston. Nigeria. The Dry Corridor. Lucknow. New York. Just a few of the many places around the world where rising global temperatures are combining with the pre-existing cruelties of social inequity to malevolent effect.
This “inequity at the boiling point” is the subject of a recent photo essay published by the New York Times with accompanying text by Somini Sengupta, the Times’ international climate reporter.
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Sengupta confirms our present summer as one of searing heat around the world: “It was a record 54°C in Baghdad in July, and 38°C above the Arctic Circle this June. Australia shattered its summer heat records as wildfires, fueled by prolonged drought, turned the sky fever red.”
It’s a global pattern, with heat waves both “more frequent and longer lasting than they were 70 years ago.” At the same time, another cruel pattern has fully emerged: “If you’re poor and marginalized, you’re likely to be much more vulnerable to extreme heat,” Sengupta writes.
“You might be unable to afford an air conditioner, and you might not even have electricity when you need it. You may have no choice but to work outdoors under a sun so blistering that first your knees feel weak and then delirium sets in. Or the heat might bring a drought so punishing that, no matter how hard you work under the sun, your corn withers and your children turn to you in hunger.”
In Athens, Greece, the Times introduces us to Hasib Hotak, 21, one of many homeless Afghan refugees who have been granted asylum in the increasingly hot country. In the first decade of the 1900s, Athens experienced fewer than 20 days with temperatures over 37°C annually. Today that number stands at around 120. Hotak suffers from the heat, and also from profound loneliness—he longs to find acceptance in a city where he feels unwelcome.
“Whenever I go out people look at me like I’m a refugee. I don’t want that. I’m human,” he told the Times.
Next stop is Houston, Texas, and the sweltering home of Norma Rodriquez and her family. “Even when you move slowly, you drip with sweat,” writes Sengupta. “When you’re working outdoors, in construction, as Norma’s father used to before the pandemic, sweat pools in your work boots. Three of his co-workers have collapsed from heat exhaustion over the years.”
One of the United States’ most rapidly warming cities, Houston has seen its average temperatures rise by more than 2°C since 1970. “If emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise at their current pace, Houston could see 109 days each year, on average, where the heat index tops 37.7°C.”
Next, the Times offers a devastating portrait of the lives of a poor Nigerian family who endure increasing heat, then on to “the Dry Corridor” of Guatemala, “one of the poorest and driest corners of the Americas,” where “five long and harsh late summer droughts have cursed this region in the last decade.” Despite the tiny carbon footprint of the average Guatemalan, the country “is poised to feel the effect of a hotter planet acutely,” writes Sengupta, including lower crop yields in a region that already suffers significant levels of malnutrition.
Leaping back across the Atlantic, the Times lands in Lucknow, India with Rabita and Ashok Kumar, a Dajit couple who labour outdoors through long days for little pay at a construction site—and live there with their children. Born into the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system, the Kumars enact a daily struggle for survival—a battle made cruelly worse by the pandemic—and by ever more searing levels of heat.
“Most people can work only at half their capacity when temperatures exceed 33°C, and exposure to many hours of heat can be fatal,” notes Sengupta, citing a recent International Labour Organization report that calls heat an occupational health hazard.
Bringing us back to New York City, the Times introduces us to Rafael Velasquez. Alone since his wife died, Velasquez “can’t afford to buy an air conditioner, and he said he had no idea how to get a free one from a city program designed to help seniors stay cool during the pandemic,” writes Sengupta.
Velasquez’s deeply uncomfortable living conditions are hardly unusual, with heat stress killing more older Americans “than any other extreme weather event, including hurricanes.” That statistic is part of an “ignominious” pattern, Sengupta notes: “Black people and Latinos like Mr. Velasquez are far more likely to live in the hottest parts of American cities.”
With the known link between heat stress and increased mortality from COVID-19, the danger in these neighbourhoods is only increasing: “This spring, around 10 residents of Mr. Velasquez’s senior housing complex died from the virus,” Sengupta writes.