DystopiaMuch of the discussion about the long term effects of Climate Change center around various natural disasters. Drought, floods, hurricanes and wildfires are the hot topics. While these direct effects are definitely things to be concerned about, there are several less obvious issues that may well turn out to have more severe and insidious consequences.

Let’s deal with the simple and obvious problems first. Heat waves, which is by far the most lethal weather phenomenon. Europe was introduced to its Climate Change future during the 2003 Heat Wave. There were 70,000 deaths related to this heat wave. In an area with a similar population to the US. 14,000 deaths in France alone. France does not typically have hot summers, so it has a lower installed base of air conditioning. Also, the heat wave happened in August, the peak vacation period in western Europe. All across Europe, the elderly were affected disproportionately.

In the US, heat is the clear leader when it comes to death from weather related events. Between 1992 and 2001 the US had 2190 deaths from excessive heat, compared to 880 from floods and 150 from hurricanes. In 1995, a heat wave in Chicago killed 600 people in five days.

Less obvious is the effect heat has on the economy. Labor productivity falls off a cliff as heat and humidity increase. For anyone who has to work outside, or in poorly conditioned buildings, the future holds less productivity, which will lead to less income, which leads to more stress. A US study at the county level found that economic productivity declined by 1.7% for each degree Celsius above 59°F (15°C).

It’s also well known that the psychological stress caused by excessive heat is also associated with increased aggression. In every society, when temperatures go up, higher crime rates follow. There is a particular association with violent crimes, such as assault, murder and rape. Although I haven’t found any studies focused specifically on police behavior, it’s hard to imagine that they would be immune to the effect. It’s logical to assume that as temperature increases, more aggressive behavior from the population would be met with more aggressive behavior from the police.  

Having the power grid go black for a few days will take on an entirely new meaning. Not just an inconvenience, but truly dangerous. It seems certain the future is going to be more violent, and will be met with higher levels of violence from police.

That’s a lot of nasty things to look forward to as Global Warming accelerates. I suspect that one thing that’s not even on the agenda may turn out to have really terrible effects on our way of life.

Working in high humidity and heat is a miserable way to spend the day. Everywhere in the world where people have to work in these conditions there is a plant that produces a drug that helps get people through the day.

In the south pacific and Melanesia, and as far north as Hawaii, it’s Kava. The root of a plant related to the pepper tree, it’s ground to a fine powder and make into a drink. The active ingredients relax the muscles while you feel mentally alert. A big bonus is a mild feeling of euphoria. It also seems to lessen appetite. Whether trying to get through the work day, or relaxing at the end of the day it’s just the right thing. Of all the drugs discussed here, Kava may be the best, since it’s not known to have any bad side effects from long term use.

In many parts of Asia and east Africa, and some of the tropical pacific, the Areca nut, when combined with Betel leaves, is sometimes called Betel Nut. It’s commonly used in Pakistan, through the Indian subcontinent, and into Bangladesh. It’s also used in Thailand, Vietnam and down to Malaysia and Papua New Guinea where many families grow Betel vines in their backyard. The Areca nut turns saliva bright red, and the spit stains roads and sidewalks all through the region. It’s also somewhat addictive, can cause cancers of the mouth and has been linked to cardiovascular disease. But when it’s hot and miserable out, it gives a person a lift, and it’s cheap.

In the horn of Africa, Somalia, and the Arabian peninsula, Khat is the popular drug used to get through the heat of the day. Like the others, a local plant is the source. It’s classified by the World Health Organization as a drug of abuse. It’s believed to cause a mild psychological dependence, similar to tobacco. Khat is on the DEA list of Schedule 1 drugs. Like Betel, it’s most often chewed through the day, but the leaves can also be dried and used in a tea. By all accounts, a great way to combat fatigue and hunger.

In the Americas, the native populations use the coca leaf. The same plant that can be further refined into cocaine. It should be noted that traditional chewing of coca leaves does not give the same high as refined cocaine. The traditional use probably goes back 8000 years in the eastern Andes. Coca has been found in mummies, some ancient statuettes show the characteristic cheek bulge of a coca chewer.

There is a common thread in all of this. All of these plants grow wild in various tropical climates. It may even be possible that some kind of co-evolution is going on. One thing for sure is that people who have to toil in these climates have found something in nature to get them through the day.

As the US gets warmer, it’s certainly possible, even likely, that these trends will become part of daily life for people who work outside. I don’t think this can be controlled. Many parts of the US are only a few degrees away from being able to grow the plants. By the time a market exists, local production will be possible. We only have to look at the history or marijuana production to how effective banning a plant that anyone can grow in their backyard has been.


One of the big questions in the climate change debate: Are humans any smarter than frogs in a pot? If you put a frog in a pot and slowly turn up the heat, it won’t jump out. Instead, it will enjoy the nice warm bath until it is cooked to death. We humans seem to be doing pretty much the same thing. Jeff Goodell


Harvard – Effects of Extreme Heat on Economic Performance

GlobalHealth.gov – Climate Change and Health

Temperature, Physiology and the Wealth of Nations

Wikipedia – History of Heat Waves

Wikipedia – Kava

Wikipedia – Areca Nut

Wikipedia – Khat

Wikipedia – Coca