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Residents gather in a public cooling shelter set up at the Oregon Convention Center during a heat wave in Portland on June 26, 2021. (Maranie Staab/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The dangerous heat wave enveloping the Pacific Northwest is shattering weather records by such large margins that it is making even climate scientists uneasy.

Why it matters: Infrastructure, including heating and cooling, is built according to expectations of a "normal" climate. Human-caused climate change is quickly redefining that normal, while dramatically raising the likelihood of events that simply have no precedent.

  • These risks include extreme heat events that can have unusually high impacts.
  • That is exactly what is playing out now, with a region of the country largely devoid of air conditioning suffering through unheard-of temperatures over a prolonged stretch of time.
  • In the past, such events have proven to be especially deadly, killing more than 70,000 in Europe in 2003, for example.

Driving the news: The heat wave is shattering all-time temperature records in the U.S. and Canada. Portland, Oregon reached 112°F on Sunday, breaking the all-time record of 108°F set just the day before.

  • Canada set a national all-time heat record on Monday, smashing the old record by nearly 3°F.
  • The buildings in these regions were not built for extreme heat, and the people living there are not accustomed to it. Public officials have been scrambling to get people to use cooling shelters to escape the sweltering temperatures.

Between the lines: "Because of the fact that climate change has made heatwaves like this much more likely and intense, we might very well reach the tipping point of what our infrastructure and other societal systems are able to deal with," Friederike Otto, of the University of Oxford, told Axios.

How it works: The heat dome over the Northwest, which is a sprawling, intense area of high pressure aloft, causes air to sink, or compress. As it does so, the air temperatures increase. Winds blowing from land to sea around this high are pushing temperatures higher.

The big picture: However, climate scientists tell Axios this actually understates climate change's influence, since warming is also altering weather patterns in ways that makes strong heat domes more common and prolonged.

  • Daniel Swain, a climate researcher at UCLA, told Axios that the mean warming in the region is "more likely a floor than a ceiling," given climate change's potential effects on atmospheric circulation, soil moisture, and other conditions that can amplify extreme heat.
  • In addition, Swain said a focus on tipping points within the climate system alone may be misguided. He also warned of "systemic failures," citing the operation of the power grid as an example of systems that can fail in extreme weather. (See: Texas, winter 2021.)

Of note: Scientists may also be missing part of the tie between global warming and extreme events, creating an even greater societal vulnerability to these events since we're not properly anticipating them and hardening our infrastructure, according to Michael Mann, a climate researcher at Penn State.

  • Mann and his colleagues have zeroed in on persistent, unusual contortions in the jet stream, which is the high altitude river of air that helps steer storms, as being linked with heat extremes such as this one.
  • Climate models, he says, don't come close to simulating how such patterns are changing in frequency and magnitude as the world warms.

The bottom line: "If our decision makers do not take this heat wave as a harbinger of things to come and act quickly to adopt the climate change policies we all know are needed, I fear for the future of humanity," Jean Flemma, an oceans policy expert living in Portland, told Axios on Sunday.

  • "This is not sustainable in a city like [Portland] that was not built for this scenario."

Go deeper

Updated Sep 23, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on investing in advanced climate tech

On Thursday, September 23rd, Axios business editor Dan Primack and Axios Today host Niala Boodhoo explored how alternative energy investments toward climate solutions function in the private and public sector today, featuring Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Galvanize Climate Solutions co-founder Tom Steyer.

Sen. Ron Wyden explained his support for overhauling the existing tax code to incentivize companies to reduce their emissions, his belief that all Americans should pay their fair share of taxes, and Congressional efforts to increase electric vehicle usage.

  • On his support for modifying the tax code: “One of the little secrets about the tax code is that many billionaires pay little or no income taxes. The way they do that is they don’t take a wage, and so Americans have read all these stories about prominent billionaires paying virtually nothing in the way of income taxes for years and years on end. I don’t think that’s right.”
  • On the future trajectory of electric vehicles: “Getting a critical mass of these electric vehicles on the road is going to bring down costs. It’s going to be good for the environment, good for marketplace forces, and the American economy.”

Tom Steyer highlighted the importance of cleaning up electricity generation across the country, how the climate tech investment landscape has changed over the last decade, and what areas of climate tech he believes need more attention and investment.

  • On the future of the infrastructure and reconciliation bills: “I believe that the Democratic Party will come to a negotiated place which will include very important climate regulations, climate initiatives, and that specifically they will be encouraging the move to clean electricity generation across the United States during this decade.”
  • On the need for more tangible innovations in climate tech: “It’s going to be incredibly important for us too to do well in the businesses like manufacturing, where you can touch the product. We have dominated the kinds of businesses like software that you can’t touch.”

Axios co-founder and CEO Jim VandeHei hosted a View from the Top segment with HSBC’s Group Chief Sustainability Officer Celine Herweijer, who discussed how sustainability is moving to the forefront of many corporations’ long-term goals.

  • “We’ve committed to essentially have a net zero target across all of our finance commissions portfolio. So to be able to do that, that means fundamentally changing how we finance it, fundamentally changing our risk appetite, changing our culture, our policies, our processes of capability.”

Thank you HSBC for sponsoring this event.

Go deeper: Get smarter, faster on the growing field of climate tech with our free short course.

Stock buybacks boom as corporate cash piles grow

The Delta variant is keeping more companies cautious about how to invest the mountains of cash they have at their disposal. That hesitancy has led, in part, to corporate spending on stock buybacks outpacing capital expenditures this year. 

Why it matters: Companies hoarded cash and raised prices over the past year — leaving them with a lot of money and decisions about what to do with it.

2 hours ago - Health

Health policies at stake in Democrats' infrastructure bet

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Democrats are at a pivotal moment in their quest to expand health care coverage, slash the cost of prescription drugs and create a social structure that prioritizes people's health.

Driving the news: Democrats have a clear list of health care priorities they'll be fighting for this week. Among them is a measure to expand Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing benefits.

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