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Tomorrow's world

Extreme heat will reshape the world

San Francisco shrouded in orange smoke from forest fires in 2020. Brittany Hosea-Small/AFP/Getty

Here in Madrid, says Simon Kuper in the FT, I have just endured the hottest heatwave of my life. Temperatures hovered around 40C. Schools closed; the vulnerable died. All of which got me thinking: as climate change makes extreme heat more frequent, how will we cope?

Europe should be fine, relatively speaking – after a deadly 2003 heatwave it started “replacing concrete in cities with trees and checking in on older residents” during hot spells. The US is different. Before the war, New York summers were so stifling that families would sleep on fire escapes in their underwear, or camp with their alarm clocks in Central Park. Then came the invention of air conditioning. But if a heatwave lasts weeks, the country’s creaking electricity grids could fail. Food supplies would rot, and without lifts, families would be trapped in high-rise apartment blocks where pumping water above the sixth floor would be impossible.

The impact will be worst in hotter, poorer countries. Currently, fewer than a million people live in areas “that average 38-45C in the shade during the hottest month”. But by 2100, there’ll likely be several hundred million people stuck in these “unlivable places” – mostly in west Africa, the Gulf and south Asia. “This is the beginning of a reckoning,” says New York University professor Eric Klinenberg. “We’re living through the very first stages.”