summer in the city

We’re Headed for a Hot, Dark Summer

The weather outside may be frightful. Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

America has seen better springs. Since the passing of winter, more than 40 million have lost their jobs, multiple African-Americans have been murdered by police, cities across the country have witnessed bouts of looting and mass police brutality, and more than 115,00 Americans have perished from a novel virus that remains uncontained.

The forecast for summer looks no sunnier (figuratively speaking). If current epidemiological, meteorological, and congressional trends continue, the coming months will bring the following hardships to our nation:

“Anomalous” heat.

In recent days, multiple meteorological models — including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s — have projected that weather patterns will bring “punishing heat” to the continental U.S. by the end of this month. While transient cold fronts will sporadically provide the nation with fleeting breezes of nice weather, the underlying atmospheric conditions will make unusually high temperatures our meteorological baseline for much — if not all — of July.

These forecasts are provisional and subject to revision. But in an era of climate change, unusually hot summer weather isn’t all that unusual.

Surging rates of coronavirus infection.

New coronavirus infections are rising in at least 20 U.S. states. In Texas, hospitalizations for COVID-19 just hit a record high for three consecutive days; in Arizona, confirmed cases have risen by an average of more than 1,000 a day over the past week. A forecasting model from investment bank Morgan Stanley projects that — if current epidemiological trends persist — the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. will double by the end of August. And since it can take a week or more for new coronavirus infections to make themselves known, existing public-health data does not reflect any potential mass-protest-induced increase in rates of infection.

Routine blackouts.

If high heat and higher coronavirus case counts both come for the U.S. this summer, there could be dark times ahead. In ordinary times, the demands of air-conditioning during heat waves can overwhelm energy grids. In a context where white-collar workers are all laboring from home, using their individual air-conditioning systems, utilities may struggle to keep the lights on. As the Daily Beast reports:

[T]he power infrastructure in residential areas is typically designed to accommodate heavy use in the early mornings and evenings, with hours to cool off during the day. Consumption patterns in these districts have already changed during the crisis, with demand spiking in the daytime. Overall usage is already up by an average of 7 percent in New York City apartments, and by 15 to 20 percent in homes in California. 

As the summer heat peaks, and juice-sucking air conditioners remain on through the afternoon, the risk of failure in aged transformers and other equipment increases.

“The fact that Lower Manhattan is using less power is not going to help to deliver power to people in Queens, many of whom for health reasons may be intolerant to high temperatures, and whose buildings are connected to a very old transmission line with limited margins to carry extra power,” said [assistant professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering Yury] Dvorkin. “What’s going to happen this summer, if we have stay-at-home orders, if we have consumption which the grid was not designed to accommodate, it will push the system to its limits.”

Soaring rates of homelessness.

Last month, the combination of relief checks and enhanced unemployment benefits produced a record-high increase in personal income in the U.S., even as tens of millions lost their jobs.

But those enhanced benefits are poised to end on July 31. And, as of this writing, congressional Republicans remain opposed to further direct cash aid, even as the unemployment rate remains in double digits and rising coronavirus cases threaten economic reopening.

Meanwhile, a federal moratorium on evictions — that only applies to publicly subsidized rental units — expires on July 24. That moratorium did not cancel tenants’ rent obligations, only temporarily barred their landlords from throwing them out on the street for not meeting those obligations. If Congress does not take action, a wave of evictions could ripple through America’s poorest neighborhoods in August, delivering disproportionate devastation to African-American communities already reeling from high unemployment and traumatic episodes of grotesque police violence.

Black Lives Matter activists are already planning a series of demonstrations this summer with the aim of influencing municipal budget-making processes. Amid high heat, power failures, mass sickness, and more widespread material deprivation than Americans are already suffering, those demonstrations could prove larger and more disruptive than any we’ve seen this far.

Or so we can hope.

Americans can’t control the weather. But we can exercise some agency over whether these other gloomy forecasts prove accurate. Wearing a mask when in public, and observing other public-health protocols — while lobbying elected leaders to redouble efforts at containment — can reduce the severity of the pandemic. Taking to the streets and telephones to demand federal aid to cash-strapped cities, extended unemployment benefits for sidelined workers, and rent cancellation for struggling households can mitigate the coming economic hardship. This summer could be nasty, brutish and hot — but only if we let it.

We’re Headed for a Hot, Dark Summer