When it's 115 degrees in the shade

Will climate change make parts of America uninhabitable?

Phoenix heat.
(Image credit: Caitlin O'Hara/Getty Images)

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

The first time I experienced 110 degrees, I walked out of a strenuously air-conditioned hotel into the blast-furnace heat of a June day in Phoenix. WHAM. It was so hot, so crazy over-the-top hot, that I burst into laughter. You kidding me? That was a couple of decades ago, and now 110 is not unusual in Arizona, which had its hottest year ever in 2020, with 53 days of 110-degree heat and 14 days of 115 degrees or higher. This year might be hotter still — it was 118 degrees in Phoenix last week — as the entire Southwest and California bake in a pitiless megadrought. The Southwest has always been one of my favorite parts of the country; just before the pandemic halted travel in March 2020, I spent a delightful week in a casita tucked into Saguaro National Park south of Tucson. In recent decades, millions of "snowbirds" have permanently fled the upper Midwest and the Northeast for Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Texas. But as the climate changes, will truly oppressive heat, and a dire lack of water, begin to force a reverse migration north?

The term "climate refugee" may summon images of Bangladesh, sub-Saharan Africa, or sinking islands in Micronesia. But in coming years, it could include Californians fleeing apocalyptic wildfires and choking air, and Arizonans and Nevadans facing unbroken months of heat so intense it is dangerous to leave the house much of the day. In this arid region, battles over scarce water will intensify. And the Southwest is not alone in its vulnerability. By 2040, climatologists warn, the Southeast will become noticeably hotter and even more humid. Southern Florida and coastal communities along the Atlantic will be so routinely flooded by rising seas and stronger storms that homeowners may have to retreat inland. Midwestern farmers are likely to see crop yields plunge. While we argue over other things, we might take note of the fact that the climate is already changing, with even more dramatic change to come.

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