Historic, unrelenting heat wave grips the Western US

For more than a week now, at least 50 million people in the Western U.S. have been living with the devastating consequences of a record-shattering heat wave. Climate change is making the duration and intensity of heat waves worse, and more common. Sammy Roth, energy and environment reporter for the LA Times, joins Geoff Bennett to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Geoff Bennett:

    At least 50 million people in the Western U.S. have been living with the devastating consequences of a record shattering heatwave for more than a week now. There have been triple digit temperatures in parts of California every day, forcing the state's electrical grid to the brink of rolling blackouts this week Sacramento set an all-time temperature record for the city, a scorching 116 degrees. Climate change is making the duration and intensity of heat waves worse, and more common.

    Joining us now to talk about this is Sammy Roth, Energy and Environment Reporter for the LA Times. It's good to have you with us. And give us a sense of just how massive and intense this heatwave really is.

    Sammy Roth, Energy and Environment Reporter, LA Times: Well, I mean, I certainly don't remember anything like it. I've lived in LA most of my life. And I've been sitting here in my apartment all week with no air conditioning, sweating pretty badly every day. But I mean, when you look at what's going on the power grid, California set a record on Tuesday on its main electrical grid for energy demand. And that speaks to the intensity of the heatwave, because everyone has been blasting their air conditioners, the electric demand record on Tuesday was shattered. On Wednesday, we had the second highest electric demand ever compared only to Tuesday, the day before. It's been 10 straight days at this point of the grid operator for the state warning that we're going to run out of power and potentially have rolling blackouts that hasn't happened, but it speaks to how hot it's been.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So, on that point, I mean, how are states and the federal government responding to all of this? I know, California has taken the unprecedented step as you mentioned, to try and stop the heatwave from causing rolling blackouts. Tell us more about that.

  • Sammy Roth:

    Sure. Part of it is on the blackout side. Governor Newsom has been sort of pulling in all of his chips here, calling around the state, trying to get people who have diesel backup generators to put them online. Natural gas plants that have spare capacity, sort of begging them to put out just a little bit more, calling up big businesses and saying please, please, please, during these critical hours in the evening, when the solar power goes away, use a little less electricity. That's on the blackout side. And then on the heat side, California is obviously looking long term, try to reduce emissions, try to solve, solve climate change and stop these things from getting worse. And also looking at what can we do to protect people from the heat. Because we know even if we reduce emissions quickly, it's going to keep getting hotter, at least for a while.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Yeah. And what is the connection between heat waves like this one that we're seeing right now ravaging the West Coast. And climate change. Are these heat waves now the new normal?

  • Sammy Roth:

    Well, I think new normal is actually kind of problematic, because it's not like we're going to settle at this point. It's going to keep getting worse. This this might seem unprecedented now, but pretty likely a few years down the road, we're going to be seeing even worse.

    And the basic connection is that climate change is raising the baseline temperature of the planet, a couple of degrees of average temperature increase might not seem like a lot. But when you think about the bell curve, and sort of, you know, you've got a range of average temperatures in the middle, and then extremes on either side. This is pushing the extremes out further and further. So as that baseline temperature goes up, we're going to see worse and worse, worse heat waves at the extreme end.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So, based on your reporting, I mean, how can we best get a handle on these heat waves, what actions need to be taken now to protect people from these heat waves that as you point out, are on track to get worse?

  • Sammy Roth:

    Well, there's a lot of stuff that can be done in sort of the short and medium term. And California is at least attempting to pioneer some of these. So, plant as many shade trees as possible, especially in communities, which are particularly communities of color and low-income neighborhoods where there's not a lot of shade and a lot of asphalt that absorbs heat and raises temperatures, plant trees and public parks put in pavement that is reflective rather than absorbing to try to cool down neighborhoods.

    Governor Newsom actually signed a bill just on Friday that is going to rank heat waves like hurricanes for the first time in California. So, the idea there is to be able to tell people like OK, we have a category four heatwave coming up. And for people to have an understanding of what that means and to realize that they really need to take serious actions to prepare and to find a way to stay cool. In longer term, it's reducing emissions and stopping the heating of the planet long term, that's the only real solution.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Sammy Roth is an Energy and Environment Reporter for the LA Times, thanks for sharing your reporting and your insights with us.

  • Sammy Roth:

    You're welcome.

Listen to this Segment