A teenager from Arizona died after being exposed to weather above 40 degrees celsius. Climate change will cut short many lives, especially in poor communities.
Last summer I packed my bags and left humid New York to spend a month reporting in the dry desert heat of Phoenix, Arizona. America’s fifth biggest city has always been hot, but day and night temperatures have been rising due to global heating and the city’s unchecked development, which has created a sprawling urban heat island that has literally become unliveable for some residents. In the past three years, 911 calls and emergency room visits for heat-related emergencies have skyrocketed and more than a thousand people have died from extreme heat. The city is scattered with cooling centres – air conditioned places where residents can go to cool down – but clearly this isn’t working for many people. I wanted to spend a good chunk of time in Phoenix to better understand why, and also who is most affected by the hotter days and nights.
My first week coincided with the season’s first extreme heatwave. Several daytime records were broken as the temperature hit 47C – very, very hot for early June – and for a week straight it never fell below 30C overnight. The impact of heat is cumulative and the body only begins to recover when temperatures drop below 27C.
It was eerie driving around as there were so few people outside. In fact, it soon became clear that it was predominantly those with nowhere else to go, the unhoused, who were outside, desperately looking for shade in car parks, shop doorways, bus stops, parks and behind dumpsters. As Phoenix has gotten hotter, the number of unhoused people has also skyrocketed amid an affordable housing crisis and this has been a deadly combination: around a half of the city’s heat deaths are unhoused people. Another big risk factor is drugs. In Phoenix, fentanyl, a downer which can be 50 to 200 times more potent than morphine, and methamphetamine, an upper which increases the risk of heat-related medical complications, are frequently used in combination.
I reported on unhoused people, folks struggling with addictions, community organisers, families that couldn’t afford air conditioning, firefighters (who are also paramedics) and the country’s first city-funded dedicated “heat team”. More than 400 people died from heat in 2022, but there was one story, an African American teenager called Caleb Blair, which got under my skin. And so I spent the next eight months trying to understand why a sweet talented kid with mental health struggles ended up naked and handcuffed, high and overheated, on the forecourt of a Circle K gas station.
I tracked down his dad, Frank Blair, and spent hours and hours with him – which at the start mostly involved counselling work as he was verging on a breakdown (I was a mental health nurse for 10 years before journalism). Frank showed me hundreds of photos and videos of Caleb growing up, and explained how he’d tried to stop Caleb taking drugs but threw him out on his 18th birthday, hoping that the tough love would turn things around. The guilt he feels is immense. I interviewed his sister Kailani, who drove past the scene of Caleb’s death but had no idea that it was her brother on the ground. I spoke to his football and basketball coaches, reviewed hours of police body-camera and audio evidence, CCTV footage and autopsy reports obtained through freedom of information requests, spoke to medical experts and visited places where Caleb had lived and died.
What I learned was that Caleb went into the Circle K asking to sit and cool down as he was hot and struggling to breath, but was told to leave as it was against company policy. He spent the next hour or so outside, where the air temperature was 44C and rising, but could have been as hot as 60C on the unshaded asphalt. His condition quickly deteriorated – he threw up, couldn’t breath easily, and became increasingly erratic which included banging his head on an employee’s car and taking his clothes off, probably trying to cool down. It was only then the employee and passersby called 911. When the cops showed up, he was naked, unarmed, erratic and verbally unresponsive, but he was treated like a threat and handcuffed. Within a few minutes he’d stopped breathing. The medical examiner found that Caleb’s death was caused by drug intoxication, meth and fentanyl, with extreme heat and pneumonia identified as contributing factors. A normal body temperature is around 36-37C. Caleb’s was 43C.
His tragic death was preventable, but in some ways it was also inevitable given the US’s social, health and economic inequalities. And it signals that the climate crisis is a risk multiplier – it exposes, intersects with and amplifies existing problems such as housing shortages, inadequate mental health and addiction services, racist policing, and the lack of shade in cities, to name just a few.
As climate chaos reaches every corner of the planet, it’s going to cut short many lives – those who are already struggling will suffer most.
Original source: https://www.theguardian.com
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