Jeff Masters Hurricane Blog

The climate canary is dead » Yale Climate Connections

I was on my way to a good friend’s installation to a new ministry when the climate crisis whomped me right upside my head.

Maybe it was the heat radiating up from the highway overpass I’d just crossed that ignited my brain. Or it could have been that my faulty 70-year-old short-term memory kicked in. Or maybe my blood sugar spiked in the 102-degree Texas summer.

Whatever lit up my “leetle gray cells,” as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot called his brain, I realized three things at once:

  1. In the stress of trying to devise a worship-suitable outfit that was also climate-friendly, I’d forgotten to take my noontime medication, a complex of drugs that keeps me going.
  2. Likewise, I’d forgotten to don my hearing aids.
  3. Most of all, I realized that there was no way that I – an elderly, fat, Type 2 diabetic – was physically able to park my car (hopefully in a “handicapped” space), totter on my pretty pink collapsible cane to the sanctuary, worship, socialize, and totter back out to the car to drive myself home.

The thought of such effort in triple-digit heat made me dizzy and breathless. I simply couldn’t go through with it.

Defeated, I turned for home at the next intersection. My husband greeted me with alarm, and then with compassion. I went into the bedroom to change clothes and dropped down weeping on a bench. My husband heard me, and he and our two little dogs came in to console me.

I felt old and useless. And hot. Really, really hot, and not in a sexy way.

The thought of such effort in triple-digit heat made me dizzy and breathless. I simply couldn’t go through with it.

That’s when I remembered that not long ago, I’d written a column about being a “climate canary” because my disabilities made me more susceptible to climate change effects. Yep, I thought to myself, the climate canary is dead. Toes up on the cage bottom. No birdseed required.

Reaching the biblical “threescore years and ten” this year, I’ve been adjusting pragmatically to the realities of aging, but my encounter with this summer’s extreme heat has startled me into survival mode. I’m re-reading every resource I could find this summer about how vulnerable people – the elderly, people with chronic medical conditions, the unhoused, and those who work outside – must take extra precautions against excessive heat. I’m reading them again with gut-wrenching knowledge that all these tips are talking about me.

I’m more keenly aware that my revelation is janie-come-lately compared to that of people in vulnerable nations who are bearing the brunt of climate change they didn’t cause. As I drove home in defeat, I chafed and cringed at the long lines of Saturday traffic snaking through the scorching Texas sun. I’m a contributor to the lifestyle that’s taking my life from me, but I don’t know how to get out of it. Nor do I know how to persuade my nation – my vast, industrialized, gas-guzzling land of oily opportunity – to give up its filthy fossil-fuel ways in time to save the planet and, I hope, people like me.

As for right now, I’ve fashioned new personal habits to adapt to a world that’s going to be hotter than any summer of my Florida childhood. My rules:

  • Never go outside for any extended time when the air temperature is above 90 degrees.
  • Avoid going out in the heat of the day, even for close relationships.
  • Set up a checklist to take your medicine in case the heat fries your brain.
  • Drink water. Gallons upon gallons of water, because it prevents the dehydration that causes your blood sugar to rise and threaten fatal diabetic coma. Always carry a bottle of water with you.
  • Wear sunscreen on your skin and sunshades over your eyeglasses when you go out. Even in the early morning, which lately has been around 80 degrees. A hat wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.
  • Forget fashion. Wear clothes that help you cope with the heat.
  • Forget make-up. It streams off your face in this heat. A little lipstick or gloss with sunscreen and a light dusting of powder. That’s it. (If you don’t like my un-made-up face, don’t look at me).
  • If you feel you need to opt out of social events, even church worship (my top priority), because of the heat, then opt out. The COVID pandemic spurred virtual worship, so the technology is available for at-home watching (but online worship still isn’t the same for me).
  • Don’t apologize to anyone for these new personal rules. You have all the justification you need: age, disability, and most of all, climate change.

Our ability as humans to adapt has kept our species alive through millennia. Our adaptability even has led to scientists calling our geological era the Anthropocene, or the time of humans. Yep, like the dinosaurs before us, we humans have taken over the planet. Now the planet is trying to take itself back, and I suspect that, like this old canary, it’s going to make up its own rules from here on out.

I hope I survive to see another birthday. 

This story was originally published by United Methodist Insight and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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