Has Climate Change Made L.A. a Refuge From the Heat?
Last summer broke heat records across America, and this summer is on track to do the same. But not here on the coast of Southern California. At my home on the east side of Los Angeles, I’ve only flipped on my air conditioner once this year, and it was just for a few hours.
Meanwhile, my friends who live in every other city are melting. The good people of Chicago and Boston and New York and Austin and Atlanta and Denver have suffered days and weeks of temperatures in the upper 90s and low 100s. But while the rest of the country flushes an angry red on meteorological maps of the lower 48, coastal California is a calm strip of yellow.
It used to be that Los Angeles was a sunny refuge in wintertime, its inhabitants happily oblivious to the bitter cold sweeping the rest of the country. When I was a kid, my aunt, the only member of our family to leave Iowa, told me about how much she missed snow now that she lived in Los Angeles. Snow! While I was trudging through drifts on my way to the school bus, Southern Californians were rolling white cotton over their front lawns to simulate a winter wonderland, even as they took afternoon dips in the pool out back. For my California-bred cousins 10 years my junior, winter was something that happened to other people. I was jealous.
So when I moved here from Washington, D.C., a year and a half ago, I fully expected to be bragging to my friends about the weather in February. They would be mired in gray slush; I’d be Instagramming palm trees. But winter across the U.S. this year was, by most accounts, exceptionally mild.
Instead, it turns out summer is my time to brag. When I tell my friends who live on the East Coast—or in the Midwest, or in Texas, or pretty much anywhere but here—that I only ran my air conditioner once last year, they don’t believe me. Los Angeles has a reputation for having a real summer. Outsiders have seen stock footage of cars overheating on jam-packed freeways and wavy lines of heat emanating from sidewalks in direct sunlight. And it’s true. During many days, the temperature does creep up into the 80s. But the nights are a deliciously cool 60 degrees. (As my friend Zak likes to say, "There are seasons in Southern California: Day and night.") I can’t speak for the Valley, but even in the eastern parts of the city proper, at midday it’s comfortable in the shade. Contrast this with the misery-inducing heat and humidity that have settled thickly across the country.
I remember how summer used to be. I remember the thigh sweat. The feeling of being so cooked, so thoroughly baked (and not in the good California way), that I could spend hours under an ice-cold shower and still not want to eat anything but popsicles. I remember falling asleep to the drone of the window air conditioner, the three tiny vents angled toward my bed making my skin too cold and leaving my insides still too hot. At the height of summer 2010, the last summer I lived in D.C., I decided to page through the daily temperature predictions on Weather.com until I got to a month where they dropped below a high of 80 degrees. I needed something to look forward to, a concrete date to etch on my mind and into my half-melted deodorant stick. When I hit October without seeing the 70s, I closed the browser window. It seemed it would never be cool again.
Over the course of any given week, there are many times I feel smug about my new life in L.A. Like when I take a slow drive through the hills at sunset with my windows rolled down, everything warm and golden. Or when I decide on a whim that I’d like to spend the day lolling about on one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in America. Or every time I slice an avocado that’s just been plucked from a backyard tree.
But July and August are when I feel sorriest for people who have chosen to live anywhere else.
Worldwide, the last 12 months were the warmest since humans started keeping track of the temperature. The heat wave stifling the center of the country is moving eastward, and new evidence that this weather pattern is a result of human behavior is prompting former climate-change skeptics to change their tune. On Sunday, Richard Muller, a co-founder of the Koch brothers-funded Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, took to the pages of The New York Times to declare that global warming is real. "Our results show that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years." Even Congress is taking notice. On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing on the latest climate change science and how cities are responding.
"Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else," Joan Didion wrote of California, "for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways." Today, it might make more sense to say this coast is a refuge for those who drifted away from the heat.
And what of tomorrow? It won’t be much of a refuge at all. The National Research Council just issued a report that predicts sea levels along the California coast will rise between two and 12 inches by 2030. It’s going to be tough to stay smug underwater.