Why we’re afraid of the heat, and how we can use heat to mitigate climate change
“This is not a brave new world but a cowardly new world where we live in a country where we are frightened of the heat.” ~ U.K. Conservative Party lawmaker John Hayes
Mr. Hayes’s statement was made as the U.K. braces for its highest recorded temperature this week in the 363 years since it started tracking them. Hayes is right—we are afraid of the heat and for good reason. Actually, for many good reasons. It doesn’t make us cowards. It makes us realists and activists, demanding that our governments and business do more to protect our health and the health of the planet.
In the U.K., airport runways are melting, trains are forced to reduce their speeds, bridges are under the threat of cracking, and public transit with no air conditioning is sweltering for passengers. Wildfires rage in Portugal, Spain, and France. Farmers are forced to work their crops at night. People are working from home, reducing foot traffic and its associated commerce. Some businesses, restaurants, and bakeries have entirely closed up shop for a few days. Droughts persist and worsen. Air quality degrades. In France, over 30,000 were forced to evacuate because of wildfires. Hospitals already overburdened with a COVID-19 surge now face even greater strain. Over 1,100 people in Spain and Portugal have died from heat-related issues this past week. Power grids are being driven to the edge of what they can handle and run the risk of failure when we need them most. All of this is due to one thing: the heat. Lots of it over a period of days, possibly weeks.
In the U.S., heat kills more people every year than any other weather hazard, and more than tornadoes, tropical storms, hurricanes, and lightning strikes combined. The elderly, children, and those with health conditions such as heart, lung, and circulatory issues are especially at risk of getting heat stroke and suffering from complications caused by it.
While many people flock to beaches, mountains, and landscapes with lower temperatures, we can’t outrun climate change. It’s not a matter of if each of us will personally be impacted by climate change, but when. No country, no community, no individual is immune to climate change impacts. This is a global, systemic problem. We are the cause, and we are also the solution.
Because we live in a global interconnected economy, we are all in this together. Because we live in a world of such massive disparity, communities with less wealth will suffer more, sooner, and more often. Communities with more wealth will also suffer, eventually, and are already feeling the suffering due to transportation, energy, health, and business challenges. Soon, all of us will be suffering from agricultural challenges caused by climate change as crops fail and yields drop. And remember, this is only the very beginning of this difficult time. Far worse scenarios await us unless we do something about it now. We can’t afford to close our eyes and pretend it’s not happening. I know it’s anxiety-producing, and I also know we have to find a way to face our anxiety and use it as fuel to create change.
As a biomimicry scientist, I approach every problem by asking, “What would nature do?” And almost always, the answer is that nature would use her resources to help life create conditions conducive to life. That’s a fancy way of saying she’d use what she’s got to survive and thrive. What we have in great abundance is heat, so how might we use heat to beat the heat?
If what we have is an excess of heat, then we have to find a way to use it. Heat is just a form of energy, and it’s a potent one that can be captured by devices known as thermoelectric generators and turned into electricity without the greenhouse gases that result when we burn fossil fuel to generate electricity.
Having excessive heat isn’t new. Why aren’t we utilizing thermoelectric generators all the time? Up until now, it’s been expensive to create these devices. Last year, a team of researchers at Northwestern University along with collaborating team at other institutions found a way to create these devices inexpensively from readily available materials and it could be a game-changer for the energy sector. They’ve got some more work to do on this to help it scale but it’s in progress.
Another team at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada has used computer modeling to identify 500 thermoelectric materials that could convert excess heat to electricity and improve energy efficiency. Their work also continues and could soon be widely available.
Yet another team at MIT has created a thermophotovoltaic (TPV) cell. Similar to photovoltaic cells in solar panels, it captures and converts heat into electricity. With this missing piece of the puzzle, they are now working on creating a fully-operational system that would provide a model for replacing fossil fuel-based power plants with this completely decarbonized solution for the power grid.
As New York City, where I live, is set to experience a 7-day heat wave with thermometer temperatures soaring over 90 degrees, I’m hopeful that industry and municipalities will partner with university research teams like the ones I described above to help us build a better future. We have no time to waste. I look forward to being a part of producing solutions that fill our future with cooler days for all of us.