Science

The Pleasurable Secret to Dealing With Extreme Heat

A break in the middle of the day can give us a chance to rest—as well as reduce our toll on the planet.

Two people in a big cream bed napping. It looks very luxurious.
Photo by LeeAnn Cline on Unsplash

Much of the planet is in the midst of a record-setting heat wave that has set large swaths of Europe on fire, disrupted daily life, and killed thousands. By some estimates, June 2022 tied with June 2020 (another disaster-laden year) for being the hottest June in the historical record. Other estimates say the scorcher of a month was only the third hottest or maybe only the sixth hottest June humans have ever recorded. Not to be outdone, July, in many parts of the United States, shattered previous heat records. And August is coming in, well, hot, extremely hot.

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While scientists hash out just how hot this summer has been in comparison to other summers, they are in agreement about one thing: climate change will continue to make heat waves longer, hotter, and more frequent.

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To deal with this hot new reality, we need to make sweeping changes to our energy production and our economy; the billions of dollars Congress allocated on Sunday to deal with excess carbon and boost green industry is just one step on a long road. But we’re also going to need personal solutions for surviving hot summer days—and ones that are not just cranking up your A/C, or going out and buying a new unit.

I’d like to offer a no-tech, sustainable solution for dealing with extreme heat: Do nothing. Stay home. Lie down. Take a siesta.

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While most often attributed to Spain, the siesta actually originated in ancient Rome. “Siesta” comes from a Latin word, sexta, which roughly translates to “the sixth hour of daylight.” Depending on the time of year, the sixth hour falls between 1 and 3 p.m. Often, this is the hottest part of the day. During the sexta hour, Romans, who did not have the luxury of air conditioning, would stop work, eat lunch, and rest. This period of rest, which in modern times has long been enjoyed in parts of Spain, is more than a simple lunch hour. Businesses really close while people enjoy a few hours of downtime at home.

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Today, as temperatures continue to set records across the globe, Europeans, particularly those who work outside, are pushing to expand the practice. Street cleaners in Madrid are negotiating for a longer midday break, as is a construction-workers union in Germany. (And I’m not the only writer arguing we should be breaking midday for our health.)

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On an individual level, a break from toiling midday gives people an opportunity to cool off, and lowers their risk of heat stroke. Offering a siesta is a means for dealing with extraordinarily hot days—and is also a reminder that, as our planet continues to warm, humans will have to adapt. Consider that on hot days, people should stay home and rest or seek out refuge at cooling centers or climate controlled public spaces. Besides, the expectation that the shops, businesses and industries keep the lights and the A/C on for a set number of hours per day without interruption is part of what got us into this sweaty crisis.

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When temperatures are hellish, doing nothing can be a lifesaver. During India’s heat wave earlier this year, temperatures routinely soared past 100 degrees for weeks at a time, officials estimate. This led to roughly 100 deaths—when experts had warned that thousands would succumb to the hellish temperatures. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, climate writer David Wallace-Wells tried to distill the lessons from this shockingly low death count. The deaths are likely an undercount, he noted. But still, it stands that a remarkable number of deaths were somehow avoided.

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Cultural practices and adaptations, Wallace-Wells found, likely played a significant role in keeping people alive. No, people didn’t simply turn on their A/Cs. Instead, “the South Asia heat wave suggests a broader spectrum of response, beginning with simple awareness,” he wrote. Government officials and the media warned the public about the risks of heat exhaustion, encouraging people to stay home. On the large scale, many regions shuttered business and sent children home from school early. On the small scale, people adapted their diet, stayed hydrated, wore lighter clothing and cooled their homes with wet sheets.

(If you’re reading this and thinking—why shouldn’t everyone just get an A/C?— let’s consider the cycle that gets created if we rely solely on air conditioners as a strategy for dealing with extreme heat: Electricity generated by fossil fuels cools us, releasing more greenhouse gasses, making temperatures rise even further, requiring more electricity use, and so on.)

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It is not practical to shut down a country entirely during an extreme heat wave, nor possible to keep it running smoothly. India—which offers all of us a glimpse into our climate futures— currently has no coordinated plan to deal with future heat waves. One of the experts Wallace-Wells interviewed suggested the country will need to implement a mix of long and “short term interventions like widespread behavioral and labor changes during episodes of extreme heat.”

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The siesta is one such small widespread behavioral change that can be implemented globally. Imagine, instead of rushing back to work after lunch, you are at home, or in a break room, basking in the sweaty stillness of a very hot day. Maybe with the (paid) time off from work you catch an afternoon movie. There’s no need to nap, though you can. The bigger agenda here is to take a break, and let your body stay cool.

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This could have larger-scale benefits too—especially if we install the siesta as a permanent part of our lives, not just a tool for resting during extreme heat. The science here is simple to comprehend. If we do less, we burn less, and we emit less. In 2020, as many countries went into COVID-19 lockdown, carbon emissions from fossil fuels dropped by 5.4 percent, Global Carbon Project estimated. (Unfortunately, emissions came roaring back in 2021.) It turns out that stopping production lines, grounding flights, and sending people home is good for the planet. Over the long haul, a simple hours-long pause in production during the sixth hour of the day could also help avert scorching high temps in the future.

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Yes, this is a costly proposition. But so are the long-term costs of conducting business as usual. And so are the costs of the technological innovations that we are currently considering. The recently passed climate bill contains a subsidy for carbon capture technology, which would remove CO2 from the air or from industry and store it. The bill bumps the tax incentive from $50 per ton captured to $180. Consider that it costs currently $600 per ton to capture carbon emissions, with over 36.3 billion tons emitted across the globe in 2021. Even at a reduced price, it’s extraordinarily costly to do the work of putting carbon emissions back in the bottle. We need a widespread, coordinated—even pleasurable!—way to help individuals reduce them in the first place.

Extreme heat is already here. And it is deadly. Perhaps we could use some of the down time spent avoiding the heat to think deeply and seriously about the crisis we face. We cannot air condition our way out of this. We cannot survive as a species at high temperatures for too long. We will not have a functioning economy in the face of ongoing climate calamities. We cannot reverse the effects of climate change, but we can keep things from getting worse. We can do nothing now, so that future generations can do more later.

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