Little, Brown and Company
The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet by Jeff Goodell
Published in July of 2023.
My campus office, where I’m typing these words, is in a building that dates to 1928. I have two fans going. One fan sits on my desk, the other by an open window. So far, I have resisted the urge to install a window AC unit because there will only be a few days of unbearable heat in New Hampshire.
According to Weather Underground, the max temperature in the town where my college is located reached 80 degrees or higher for 25 of the 31 days this past July.
Unsurprisingly, my commitment to forgo installing an electricity-sucking window AC unit in my office is wavering.
Anyone like me, who works in a campus office built in a location where air conditioning has moved from a luxury to a necessity, will be pre-disposed to the facts and arguments presented in The Heat Will Kill You First.
The world, including your campus and mine, is rapidly heating up.
Anyone in higher education halfway paying attention knows that the climate crisis will impact every aspect of university operations.
We all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Bryan Alexander for his efforts to provide a common framework and scenarios to enable universities leaders to develop proactive strategies and policies to meet current and future climate change challenges. Through his book, Universities on Fire, and his ongoing speaking, facilitating, thought leadership and consulting, Bryan has helped to push the climate crisis to the center of higher ed conversations.
But Bryan can’t do it alone. We need to be reading and talking about other climate-related books to spur our university leaders to action.
In the aftermath of the Maui fires (due partly to the island getting hotter) and a summer of record temperatures, the moment may be right to focus our colleagues’ attention on The Heat Will Kill You First.
If this book does not freak you out, I don’t know what will. We tend to worry about climate-related impacts such as flooding and severe hurricanes. But as the book amply demonstrates, rising temperatures will have the broadest and deepest adverse effects. Not only are rising temperatures associated with outcomes such as droughts and fires, but human beings are also exquisitely sensitive to excess heat.
Over the next few decades, many of the activities we now take for granted on our campuses will need to change. Outdoor university activities, from sporting events to students hanging out in quadrangles and greens, will almost surely be curtailed. Green spaces and open stadiums will require sheltering roofs and hydration stations. The university arborist may be promoted to a cabinet-level position as tree cover evolves from an aesthetic choice to an institutional resilience necessity.
While reading The Heat Will Kill You First, I kept thinking about all the existing deferred maintenance on hundreds and hundreds of older buildings at colleges and universities throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Few buildings built during or before part of the last century in these regions have AC. All of these buildings will need to be retrofitted with central cooling if they will be usable in the years to come.
Students can’t learn, and professors can’t teach in classrooms as hot as saunas. Little research, advising or administrative work will be accomplished if faculty and staff drop from heat stroke. Parents will balk at paying for residence halls that are too hot to study or sleep.
Where will the money come from for these already cash-strapped institutions to transform their facilities to account for rising temperatures? The buildings in most need of retrofitting, those in the Northeast and Midwest, are also in areas facing the most extreme demographic cliffs.
As The Heat Will Kill You First makes clear, the time to mitigate the sources and effects of rising temperatures is now. University leaders can prioritize support of research and policies that will help to de-carbonize the economy through a shift to clean and renewable energy.
But no university leader can wait to prepare her campus for the assaults on students, faculty and staff that the heat will almost surely bring.
What are you reading?