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Scientists say extreme heat should inspire more aggressive action on climate change

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Cities with temperatures over 120 degrees for days on end, whole neighborhoods flooded after heavy rain. Summer is taking a big toll worldwide.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

So as the climate keeps changing, how much worse could weather-related disasters get?

MARTIN: Lauren Sommer from NPR's climate desk is here to answer that. Good morning, Lauren.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So communities have been dealing with some life-threatening disasters. Is this what we should expect summers to be like from now on?

SOMMER: I wish I could say no, but what we're seeing this summer is exactly what the science says we should expect. You know, the planet has already gotten about two degrees Fahrenheit hotter, largely due to burning fossil fuels, and that's just amping up heat waves. They're more intense and more frequent. Extreme rain is the same. A hotter atmosphere can hold more moisture, so the rainstorms can be more intense, like what's happened in Vermont. In fact, you know, in the Northeast, the most extreme storms are dropping 55% more rain now than they did in the first half of the 1900s.

MARTIN: Could this get even more extreme? Could it get worse?

SOMMER: Yeah, you know, that will really depend on us, you know? So the greenhouse gases we're emitting now, you know, from the cars we drive, the power we use, those will keep warming the planet. So some of it is already baked in, but then it's a question of how fast we can cut emissions. And Kim Cobb, who's a climate scientist at Brown University, says every little bit counts.

KIM COBB: Each increment of additional warming brings this host of climate-related extremes and impacts that are so devastating. So there is no doubt at all that we have to get to work more earnestly than ever.

SOMMER: If emissions don't fall and we stay on this track, extreme heat waves could be almost three times as common as they are now.

MARTIN: So are we learning things now that could help us deal with even more heat? And, you know, what about air conditioning?

SOMMER: Right, you know, we definitely need it. But it's not the only answer, right? So we run A/C to cool a house when it's hot inside. But we could be doing a better job at just keeping the heat out in the first place. And one way is simply by painting the outside of a house lighter colors, which, you know, reflects sunlight, so it doesn't really heat up as much. Or maybe pick a lighter roof color when the roof is replaced or use special cool roof materials. Those come in different colors. Ronnen Levinson is a climate scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who studies this.

RONNEN LEVINSON: This is the time to start transforming our buildings. In fact, to continue transforming our buildings, we have to think long term now. And we can make a hot choice, or we can make a cool choice.

SOMMER: Levinson says, you know, the light-color walls and a cool roof can actually reduce a home's need to run the A/C by 10 to 40%.

MARTIN: And what about this extreme rain and flooding?

SOMMER: Yeah, you know, that's also a question of just how we build. You know, many cities are still designing infrastructure - you know, like roads and storm drains - for the storms of last century because the rainfall data they're using is decades old and it doesn't take climate change into account. So you know, the federal government is in the process of updating that. It's going to take several years. So it's just really critical that every community think about how the infrastructure that's being built right now is going to fare as the climate continues to change.

MARTIN: That's Lauren Sommer from NPR's climate desk. Thank you, Lauren.

SOMMER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.