Heatwaves may kill as many of us as all infectious sicknesses

The world’s getting warmer and people are feeling the heat. Hong Kong, where I’m basting today in 33°C temps, recorded its hottest month on record in July. Heatwaves have struck Europe, the U.S., the Middle East and even Siberia this year, where temperatures peaked at 38°C and sparked wildfires.

With global temperatures on the rise, heat-related deaths will increase too—killing as many people a year as all infectious diseases combined, a new report says.

The research from Climate Impact Lab shows worldwide heatwaves could kill an average 73 people per 100,000 in 2100 if climate change is left unabated. That’s the same as the current mortality rate for all infectious diseases. In hotter countries, the rate could be as high as 200 per 100,000.

MIT Technology Review, however, contends the death rate can be lowered by up to 29% if regions invest in air conditioners and other urban cooling structures. But, as Fortune reported in a March feature on the African AC boom, cooling cities poses its own challenges for climate change. Electricity to power those cooling machines often comes from burning fossil fuels, which intensifies the world’s greenhouse effect.

Relying on AC to provide lifesaving cooling isn’t an option for those who can’t afford it. In New York City—which last week instructed the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to begin measuring and reporting on the impact of extreme heat—data already shows people living in low income areas are more likely to die from heatstroke than those in more affluent neighborhoods.

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There could be an architectural solution to these issues. Modern skyscrapers, for instance, favor glass facades, which increase the need for air conditioning. Last year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened to ban glass skyscrapers from the city, unless those buildings can meet much stricter requirements for energy efficiency. Debate on whether improvements in glass technology will ever make it energy efficient enough to justify its sweeping usage rages on.

Some architects have begun eschewing the material. Others are crafting building designs that allow for natural cooling—such as The Star shopping complex in Singapore, the curves of which reportedly create a natural breeze.

Figuring out how to cool cities without warming the world is a life and death issue.

More below.

Eamon Barrett

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