The Inflationary Heat Wave

In his book “The Ministry for the Future”, author Kim Stanley Robinson imagines a heat wave impacting India, pushing temperatures ever higher for an extended period of time. Eventually temperatures exceed the “wet bulb temperature”[1] for human survival, the point when a human body can not cool itself down by sweating, sitting in the shade, or drinking water. The death toll is unimaginable. Millions die. So begins Robinson’s account of a world in the throes of global warming.

This year contained many headlines that echoed Robinson’s book. There were heat waves in Australia, India, North America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. It comes on the heels of energy and food shortages, exacerbating already stressed pressure points for global security and worsening inflation. To date I’m not aware that there have been any places where the WBT has gone above 35C, but that doesn’t mean people, economies, and nations aren’t being pushed to the breaking point. Forest fires are common after such an extended period of heat. Crops suffer and efforts to stop agricultural failure are expensive. Water patterns are disrupted, with sudden downpours and earth so parched it can’t absorb rapid deluges leading to flooding. Electrical grids are increasingly stressed to their breaking point as demand surges. And of course, people die due to heat exhaustion.

How hot are these heat waves? In January temperatures in Buenos Aires reached 41.1C and 700,000 people lost power. In Australia a town called Onslow reached 50.7C, tied now for the hottest temperature recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. The city of Perth had 11 days of temperatures over 40C. In the same period (early February), Palm Springs in California reached 34C.

In March and April 90 deaths would be recorded across India and Pakistan, a number almost certainly (and deliberately) inaccurate. Cities across the subcontinent saw temperatures more than 42.8C, and one city in Maharashtra state recording over 45C. Pakistan saw temperatures in excess of 49.5C and 47C in various cities. Birds fell from the sky in Gujarat, and a bridge collapsed in Pakistan following glacial flooding. While the official total was only 90, other more recent heat waves across Europe reveal those numbers must be much higher, with some of the most vulnerable in the society simply going uncounted as victims.

In June heat waves hit much of Europe, pushing temperatures up to 40C, or higher across much of the continent. That same heat wave reached the UK, pushing the temperature in London to 40C as well, a first in living memory for the country. While that spike was short lived, it was a reminder of just how dependent populations are on the infrastructure built on certain climatic expectations. Air conditioners, while not totally uncommon, are not used by the majority of Europeans, and often homes or apartments cannot easily accommodate their introduction by design.

Our thinking can also be quite constrained by experiences, but the extreme temperatures we’ve seen affect more than people. Heat waves and their accompanying droughts can also create problems we wouldn’t consider. In France the temperature of rivers (specifically the Rhone and Garonne) rose so much that they were too hot to cool nuclear reactors, forcing shutdowns. In Germany the Rhine was so low in early August that it was in danger of being shut to cargo, potentially hindering delivery of the coal now needed to meet energy needs. And in China, Foxconn, a major industrial supplier for companies like Apple and Toyota, suspended plant operations as the region suffers from hydropower shortages due to low water levels in the Yangtze.  

We’ve just passed the end of summer, but across much of the world heat waves have left significant impacts on economies and peoples.  I started writing this piece while in Spain with my family in July, where everyday temperatures had remained above 40C. Since then I have been returning to this essay only to note that things have gotten worse. The high temperatures being faced by people in countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been compounded by surging demand for electricity, forcing governments to have structured rolling blackouts. Protests have been erupting in Pakistan as energy prices have continued to soar despite the ongoing blackouts. In Bangladesh production in the garment industry has struggled as a result of the mandatory power cuts, efforts to curb the rising prices faced by the nation in energy and food.

If water levels were low in China at the beginning of August, they were positively dire at the summer’s end. China’s largest freshwater lake, Poyang Lake, nearly dried up forcing extensive trench digging operations to keep water flowing to farmland. In France portions of the Loire River ran dry (the government is quick to point out the river is still open to traffic and is not at its historic lowest point) while in Nevada the artificial lake created by the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead (the primary source of water for Las Vegas) is at its lowest levels since 1937 (Lake Mead has had a small rebound since the end of July, driven in part by reduced demand downstream of the dam). The heat wave affecting California is now thought to be one of the worst and most persistent in history. Meanwhile in Pakistan heat waves have given way to unparalleled flooding. An estimated 33 million people have been displaced, 15% of the country’s population, as its crumbling infrastructure has proven no match for extreme weather.

Global warming has much the same effect on economies like black holes do on physics, warping everything around them until the laws we assume that govern things become unrecognizable. In the period of a week or so, roughly 900 people died in Spain from the heat, including the death of a sanitation worker who dropped dead on the job in Madrid due to heart failure. Reportedly his internal body temperature was above 40C when he was attended to by paramedics. In the face of tragedies like this, what are governments likely to do? What will citizens do?

They will be forced to act, encouraging the use of air conditioners, building more resilience in the electrical grid, directing public funds to deal with vulnerable individuals who are at risk in high heat conditions. If crops start to be affected, you can also bet that governments will be more predatory when it comes to protecting grain supplies and working on minimizing the effects of climate related inflation. If energy rationing becomes more common it will force more top down restrictions, more public money towards expensive infrastructure projects, and contractions in living standards.

For my own part I remain unconvinced that governments will be proactive with regards to these challenges, and instead I expect them to be reactive to a fault with only the richest nations able to potentially solve more than one problem at a time. But short-sighted self interest is not unique to kleptocratic dictatorships. In the United Kingdom, which came under numerous “hosepipe bans” in the summer, selling off reservoirs for new developments while not investing in any new significant water infrastructure for 30 years goes hand in hand with climate change impact. Countries across Europe, Asia and North America have been robbing Peter to pay Paul, and now the bill is coming due.

Winter is coming, and before us lies the potential for further difficult months. Heatwaves have raised food prices and taxed electrical grids. Winter promises to see further pain as energy needs traditionally met by Russian oil will now need alternatives. Coal, a major contributor to the climate crisis, is the current favourite choice both across the developing world, but now also in wealthier western countries facing the pinch of oil and natural gas shortages. The demand is so great that coal use is expected to be at an all time high in 2022. In Germany people are buying electric heaters, but being so inefficient they actually use more electricity and will likely increase energy prices further for Europe’s most beleaguered industrial powerhouse.

Headlines in 2022 have been dominated by central banks raising interest rates to combat inflation. The risk of this strategy is a recession, potentially globally, but the cost of failure is an inflationary environment where food, energy, utilities, and consumer goods become more expensive. And yet that is exactly what has happened; over confidence, short sightedness and a fundamental misunderstanding of resilience planning has made us all “richer” in the short term, but promises to make us pay more in the long term. Heatwaves are baking in our inflation.

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[1] You may never have heard of the wet bulb temperature before, but it will be something we all come to know. The temperature is determined by having two thermometers side by side, one covered with a “sock” soaking in water. As air moves over the wet bulb of the second thermometer, moisture will evaporate and lower the temperature, giving you a different reading from the unadulterated thermometer. The first tells you the outside air temperature. The second tells you how much cooler you can be if water is evaporating off you. If in a heat wave the WBT reaches or exceeds 35C, the human body can not survive for an extended period outdoors.

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