Warming Trends: Cooling Off Urban Heat Islands, Surviving Climate Disasters and Tracking Where Your Social Media Comes From

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

A Chinese man wears a protective mask as he waits to cross a nearly empty intersection on Feb. 26, 2020 in Beijing, China. Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
A Chinese man wears a protective mask as he waits to cross a nearly empty intersection on Feb. 26, 2020 in Beijing, China. Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

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Urban Heat Plummets Under Covid Lockdowns in China 

Under some of the strictest lockdowns in the world, Chinese cities saw human activity all but cease in February and March of 2020. The strange scenario allowed researchers to investigate how much of an impact human activity had on the urban heat island effect.

An analysis of more than 300 big cities in China showed the urban heat island intensity in air temperature decreased 36 percent during the day and 42 percent at night while the nation was under early Covid-19 lockdowns. Researchers from China, Europe and the U.S. also found that the urban heat island intensity of land temperatures decreased by 25 percent during the day and 20 percent at night, according to a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. 

The urban heat island effect is the phenomenon where cities are warmer than surrounding rural areas because of factors like heat-absorbing buildings and streets, and a lack of trees. According to the study findings, human activity is also an important factor, largely because of heat flux from cars, buses and taxis bustling through the city streets. 


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Jiameng Lai, who contributed to the research while she was a master’s student at Jiangsu Provincial Key Laboratory of Geographic Information Science and Technology in China, said researchers have long known that human activity is related to urban heat island intensity, but the Covid-19 lockdowns provided a unique opportunity to monitor exactly how significant human activity is, which can help cities cope with the effect, which is becoming more intense as the climate changes. 

“Once we know how much human activities can change the urban heat island, I think we can better monitor how much we can diffuse or mitigate this phenomenon,” said Lai. 


Houston, We Have a Problem 

As people are exposed to more and more hazardous events, including climate disasters, their mental health is reduced, new research has found. 

“As you’re experiencing these sorts of things over and over, as an individual or as a community or as a family, don’t expect the adage that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” to hold, said Garett Sansom, a researcher in the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University.

Sansom and other researchers at Texas A&M assessed the mental health of 1,200 residents in the Houston metro area shortly before the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Participants who had experienced repeated exposure to hazardous events had lower mental health scores, the researchers said in a study published this month in the journal Natural Hazards.

Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, was chosen because so many disasters intersect there, Sansom said, including climate disasters like hurricanes and floods, but also industrial-sector disasters related like chemical fires and spills. 

This problem is not unique to Houston, and communities are going to need to prepare for an increase in mental health needs as climate disasters rise, Sansom said. “If we’re talking about the wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, if we’re talking about hurricanes in the Northeast, if we’re talking about flooding in the Gulf of Mexico; as we move forward, these types of experiences are likely to occur more often, not less often.”


A New Book Looks at the Clothing Industry. It’s Not Pretty.

A new book stitches together the history of five fabrics that make up the foundation of the clothing industry of past and present: linen, cotton, silk, synthetics and wool. In this centuries-long tale, problems arise around women’s rights, labor issues and environmental demise through pollution, resource exploitation and climate change.

The book, Worn: A People’s History of Clothing, by Sofi Thanhauser was released on Jan. 25. Inside Climate News recently discussed the book with Thanhauser. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why did you set out to write this book on the history of clothes?

I did start to notice that just by looking at clothes that the old ones were better. I noticed that, and then I think in college, I just started to get really frustrated with how stupid everybody looks. And maybe that was partly just, you know, being a 20-something who was pissed off at a lot of things. But I did feel like we looked stupid and I started to think about the possibility that maybe the clothing looked bad because it was bad. 

And started to think about industrialization and how much of the story of industrialization is the story of textiles and particularly women’s labor changing overnight from something that took place in the context of a farm to something that took place in a factory. 

I kept waiting for somebody to write this book about clothing because I just kept collecting stories about it in my mind and arguments about it. Like, why isn’t anybody talking about the fact that this is the site of the story of women’s labor and women’s exploitation? And it’s the site of the story of the domination of the Global South, first by England and now by the U.S.? And why isn’t anybody talking about this? And at a certain point I realized that the book that I really wanted somebody to write, I was just gonna have to write. 

How does climate change and the environment come into the story of clothing?

The textile industry is an enormous producer of carbon emissions, first of all, because of the way we move goods. I mean, the whole structure of the contemporary garment trade is basically moving cotton. We’re all wearing cotton today, and cotton only grows in a very particular climate. And so we’re growing cotton in India and in the southern United States, in western China, in Africa. And then we’re transporting it to the wealthy countries like England, the U.K., European Union, Japan. It’s both a huge expenditure of carbon in the form of electricity to drive like textile machinery, but it’s also a huge consumer of water.

Maybe the simplest way to say it would be that the clothing industry is contributing to causing global warming. And it is also exacerbating the effects of water shortages in places that are already threatened by water shortages.

After researching and writing this book, where do you believe the industry is heading? Toward a sustainable future? Or continuing to spiral toward destruction of the environment and livelihoods? 

I’m not very optimistic… I think that the pandemic certainly showed me that we can change our behavior really fast in response to a crisis if we have to. But I don’t know that in the absence of a crisis, we can.


‘Lament of the Earth’

In Micah 6 in the Old Testament, God is upset with the Israelites. “My people, what have I done to you?” he asks. “How have I burdened you? Answer me.” God lists what he has done for his people—bringing them out of Egypt, saving them from slavery, sending them a leader in Moses. 

David Cherwien, a composer and artistic director for the National Lutheran Choir, said the passage on how the Israelites had wronged God made him think about how humans have wronged the Earth.

His inspiration led him to commission a 35-minute composition titled Lament of the Earth, composed by Steve Heitzeg with lyrics by Cherwien’s late wife Susan, a longtime poet and hymn writer who died in December. 

“We wanted to take that text that the Christians have used since the ninth century and make it the voice of the Earth,” Cherwien said, “so that we have a chance to confess our sin against the Earth given all that it does to sustain us and give us life.”

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The four-movement piece will premiere in Washington state on Earth Day in April, followed by a performance in Cherwien’s home state of Minnesota on May 1, which will be live streamed on National Public Radio, he said. 

The composition combines traditional string instruments with sounds from more unique instruments, like grass seed rattles, windchimes made of bamboo and sea shells, and plastic bags filled with small plastic pieces. A choir sings lyrics that move from a vivid description of Earth’s patterns, to what Heitzeg called a “deep, deep cry from the Earth,” then ending on a lyrical celebration of beauty, which an audience can sing along to.

“There are some moments of intensity and darkness,” said Heitzeg, “but it’s mainly intended as, in my mind, a piece for hope, especially the ending, that hopefully we all walk in beauty.”


‘A Network of Verification’

A new social media platform aims to connect climate groups to audiences while combating misinformation through decentralized, human fact checking.

Tru Social, currently in beta testing, was founded by technology entrepreneur Jim Fournier. The platform is made up of interest groups called “hubs” that users can join to see content, which can be shared to other hubs to reach a wider audience. All content has a “TruLine” digital trail that shows where each piece of content originated and who shared it, making each user accountable for the information they post. 

The platform does not show ads, allows users to control their data sharing and aims to hold bad actors accountable for false content. 

Fournier said he was frustrated with traditional social media platforms, namely Facebook, which relies on algorithms to display content to users and has been accused of feeding users more polarizing content.

“The unintended consequence is that it takes people into little bubbles,” Fournier said, “deeper and deeper into more extreme views.”

Fournier said the Laudato Si Movement, the Council of Canadians and other climate groups are participating in the beta testing for Tru. These groups are struggling to reach their audiences on traditional platforms, he said, because of the way the algorithms work and how noisy their feeds are.

Tru is not the “arbiter of truth” on its platform, Fournier said, but rather provides the infrastructure for “a network of verification.”

“What is needed is an infrastructure that allows organizations to publish and to also cite and refute other things that are published and to reconstruct what society used to do,” he said. “Where there was factual debate and discussion and you could cite a piece of content and go, you know, this is wrong for these reasons, and these are the parties that say so.”