I recently attended a wedding in the Sierra foothills region of Northern California. It was hot. To get there we drove through the Sacramento valley, where temperatures were over 100 degrees. At the wedding, held in late afternoon, the temperature was in the 90s and we were all seated outside in the bright summer sun. As the ceremony began, a minister approached the canopy where the couple stood. Suddenly the canopy collapsed, there was a commotion, followed by an urgent appeal for a doctor. The minister had fainted. As a small crowd surrounded the fallen minister, holding up a sheet to shield him from the sun, we were told that an ambulance crew was on the way and to please be patient.
Fortunately, the man was not seriously ill. He had simply collapsed from heat and dehydration. Once the ambulance crew had come and gone, the wedding proceeded without further incident. Then, driving home, we began to see electronic signs warning of traffic delays due to graduation ceremonies at a university near Sacramento. Sure enough, there was a big traffic jam in that area. It was not until we got home and read the evening news that we discovered that midway through the ceremony, the graduation ceremony was canceled, due to heat. There had been already a number of medical emergencies during the ceremony.
‘To understand the true scale of our warming planet, we need to be enormously inductive in our thinking.’
These two stories are not major climate news. They don’t have the scope and scale of the shrinking of the Amazon forest or the melting of the polar ice cap. But that’s the point: even the smallest and most mundane events of our lives are being impacted by the heat. They are almost below the scale of a problem, or an emergency. But let’s remember the parable of the frog. The frog of the parable will jump out if you drop him in a pot of boiling water. But if you drop him in cold water, and then slowly heat the water, the frog will die. They will be no inflection point when the frog says, “Oh wait. It’s too hot now, I’ll jump out.” Eventually he notices that he is very hot, but by then it is too late.
That’s us. We are all the frog. The frog parable is used so often it has become a cliché, but it points to a quality that we share we frogs: the threat systems in our bodies are not designed to react to gradual threats. Our nervous system is primed to jump when there is an immediate threat: a lion leaping out from the bushes, perhaps, or, in a more au courant image, a man with a rifle in a supermarket. I read that in some parts of the Middle East, there are already days or weeks that are technically too hot for human survival. People die from the heat in those places, but even in a fatal heat wave the people there are like the frog. They say, oh, this happens, it’s happened before, it’s part of life. Or maybe they are smart enough to want to jump out, but there is no place to jump to. It is hot everywhere. On a related note, I just read that the Great Salt Lake is disappearing. It has already shrunk by two-thirds, due to climate change and drought. The salt flats that remain are full of toxic heavy metals due to industrial waste, and when the strong winds come, dust storms blow this toxic dust through the Salt Lake City metropolis, causing respiratory problems and disease. And yet the city is forecast to double in population by 2060—a case not only of the frog slowly being boiled, but of new frogs jumping in regardless of the heat. Salt Lake City is still considered one of the more desirable and affordable places to live.
I consider myself pretty well-informed, but the story of the Great Salt Lake was news to me. It was also news to Paul Krugman, the NY Times columnist who wrote his own column about this topic. There are undoubtedly thousands of stories all over the country and the planet just like this. No one person can possibly keep up. I started this post by reporting on a small personal experience of the heat. But in order to understand the true scale of our warming planet, we need to be enormously inductive in our thinking—expanding our own personal experience by a factor of 10,000 or 10,000,000—l don’t know what the true number is.
The problem is that each of us “human frogs” don’t usually think that way. We have evolved to think and act locally, in a tribe or community of a few hundred, in a valley or a savannah of a few score miles across. We are thinking, sentient creatures, nevertheless we are not built to easily understand the problems that face us. And that is a meta-problem that no amount of doom-decrying can fix. The best we can hope for, probably, is that the water in the pot we are boiling in suddenly undergoes a dramatic increase in temperature, sudden enough for our locally-focused brains to notice. Will we then, and only then, jump out? Or will it even then be too late?