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Author Jeff Goodell Talks Climate Change in Presidential Lecture

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President Maurie McInnis hosted author Jeff Goodell at the October 25 Presidential Lecture, held at the Wang Center. Photos by Conor Harrigan.

In April 2023, the city of New York and the Trust for Governors Island selected The New York Climate Exchange, a historic new partnership led by Stony Brook University, to create a climate science Solution Center on Governors Island. The Exchange will develop innovative, equitable climate solutions that can be brought to market, scaled and applied globally.

With that backdrop, award-winning author and investigative journalist Jeff Goodell joined Stony Brook President Maurie McInnis in the Wang Center Theater on October 25 for a climate-focused Presidential Lecture, the first in Stony Brook’s special “Answering the Call” series on climate change.

Goodell spoke about the inspiration behind his latest book, The New York Times bestseller The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, and shared insight on how to mitigate the impact of climate change.

“Rising temperature and ecosystem degradation is threatening life on Earth, and human-centered climate change is already causing many extreme weather and climate events around the globe,” President McInnis said. “We all know from the headlines this summer that the failure to act is no longer an option. If there was ever a time for all of us to work across our disciplines, it is now, and Stony Brook is ready as part of our leadership work in this area.”

Goodell said the inspiration for his newest book came in Phoenix, Arizona, in the summer of 2019. “I was staying at a hotel downtown, and I was late for a meeting,” he said. “The meeting was 20 blocks away. I couldn’t get an Uber so I thought, ‘no big deal, I’ll just walk.’ It was 116 degrees and since I was late, I walked fast. By the time I got the 20 blocks to where I was going, I was dizzy and my heart was pounding. And I thought, ‘my goodness, this heat could actually kill me.’”

Goodell book heat will kill you firstWhat surprised him most was that at the time, he had already been a climate journalist for 15 years, writing about the effects of climate change.

“Heat is not exactly a secret,” he said. “But I had never really thought about heat as an active force. That it’s not just some background thing but that it can actually hurt or even kill you relatively quickly. So a light bulb went off in my head. I realized that I didn’t know what ‘heat’ was, or what the implications of heat were, and if I didn’t know after writing about it for years, there were probably many others that also didn’t know.”

Goodell reported that the largest mortality of any kind of climate impacts — by far — is from extreme heat. “Two summers ago, 60,000 people in Europe died during a heatwave,” he said. “When it comes to what is most dangerous climate-wise, heat is at the top of the list.”

One challenge is the misconception of what ‘heat’ is.

“It’s part of our daily lives in a very real way, but we don’t think about it in abstract climate terms so much,” he said. “We take it for granted and our everyday understanding of it can be a big challenge. We hear about three or four degrees of warming and it sounds like nothing.”

Goodell noted the “Goldilocks Zone,” a phrase used by scientists looking for life on other planets, is useful for thinking about temperature because everything that lives — and even things that don’t live like bridges and iPhones — have temperature zones where they function. “Humans’ ‘Goldilocks Zone’ is a product of our evolutionary history,” he said. “And when we get out of that temperature range, it’s a problem for us. But it’s also a problem for frogs and redwood trees. It’s a problem for everything.”

In his book, Goodell frames the idea of heat as the primary driver of all the climate impacts. “We tend to think of things like hurricanes and droughts and sea level rise, but in fact heat is the driver for all these other things — heat is the reason why seas are rising, and heat is the reason why hurricanes are getting bigger and more intense,” he said. “It’s a primary driver of a kind of planetary chaos.”

Pres lecture mcinnis goodellAs a recent example, Goodell mentioned the summer wildfires in Canada. “Half of Canada was on fire, and part of the reason for that is because it’s been hotter,” he said. “More heat means more water evaporates out of the soil. That stresses the trees which become drier. When fires do ignite, they burn bigger and hotter and longer. So heat drives these bigger wildfires.”

Goodell also mentioned Hurricane Otis, which hit Acapulco, Mexico, in late October, and was still raging as he addressed the audience.

“What’s extraordinary about this hurricane is that it accelerated 100 miles an hour in 12 hours,” he said. “Hurricanes are heat engines and they play off the differential between the air temperature and the water temperature. The hotter the water is, the more intensive hurricanes tend to be. I think we’re going to see this as a textbook example of how hotter oceans can drive bigger storms.”

Despite the existential danger that nature itself is presenting, Goodell is more worried about the actions of mankind.

“What keeps me up at night is the thought that we’ll just accept it like we did with COVID,” he said. “A giant hurricane just wiped out Acapulco…I fear we’ll just accept that as a consequence of today’s world and forget that the reason there’s giant hurricanes is because we have heated up the climate so much. Lethargy is what I am worried about.”

Goodell stressed that his message wasn’t one of gloom, but rather a call to action.

“The conversation needs to shift from ‘doomsday’ stuff to the idea of building a better world,” he concluded. “We are in a moment where we have a real opportunity to change everything. So let’s do it.”

— Robert Emproto

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