Fri, Sep 06, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The hellish future of Las Vegas in the climate crisis

Las Vegas is the fastest-warming city in the US — and its poorest residents are most at risk in the heat

By Dan Hernandez  /  The Guardian, LAS VEGAS

Illustration: Mountain People

Clark County death investigator Jill Roberts vividly recalls the sunny 46°C afternoon last summer when she entered a Las Vegas home with no functional air conditioning. The indoor heat felt even worse than the broiling temperature outside.

She climbed up the stairs, through thick, stifling air, landing in a third-story bedroom where the resident had died in sweltering conditions. The room had no fan and the door was shut. It felt as if it could not get any hotter.

“Our elements are unforgiving. Especially on those 115°F [46°C] days, it doesn’t take a lot,” Roberts said. “In that situation I’ll go stand in the sun in the 115°F heat to do my paperwork, as opposed to staying in the house because it’s that hot.”

The coroner’s office in Clark County, which encompasses Las Vegas, often records heat as a contributing factor to accidental deaths. There are hikers succumbing to lethal temperatures in the surrounding desert, and heat-related deaths in vehicles and homes when occupants forgo cooling.

Roberts has seen homeless people with post-mortem burns from collapsing on hot streets.

And it will get worse. Las Vegas is the fastest-warming city in the US; its temperatures having risen 3.2°C since 1970.

A June study of coroner data by the Las Vegas-based Desert Research Institute found a correlation between heat waves and heat-related deaths in southern Nevada, both of which, they say, are on the rise.

Moreover, a recent Union of Concerned Scientists report warned that without global action to reduce carbon emissions, the city will likely experience 96 days of heat above 37.8°C by the end of the century, including 60 days over 40.6°C, and seven “off the chart” days that would break the current heat index.

Every city has its own challenges in adapting to climate change, even those that are supposedly accustomed to severe heat. In Las Vegas, a laissez-faire attitude toward growth has allowed high temperatures to become even more deadly, and the scorching heat now threatens the city’s basic functionality.

Like the tourist guzzling alcohol by the resort pool, smiling and flirting until he faints from dehydration, southern Nevada has welcomed unfettered development since the 1930s — the advent of the home cooling era — when its population began to double in size nearly every decade, despite limited water resources and increased drought.

The resorts have long been the economic driver. More than a third of the area’s workforce is supported by the 40 million visitors a year who descend on their gargantuan hotel towers, bustling casinos and massive convention halls. As tourism grows, so does the population.

During the boom years before the 2008 housing crisis, hundreds of kilometers of desert landscape were paved over with heat-absorbing asphalt and concrete, worsening a “heat island” effect in the cauldron-like valley.

Outward growth also led to vehicles motoring further across the sprawling metropolis, increasing heat-trapping carbon emissions.

Now, with growth having continued each year since 2011, and new home developments returning to boom-era levels, Sin City is reckoning with a future that looks downright hellish.

“The thing about Vegas is, we always do feast and famine,” said Tick Segerblom, a former US state senator who now sits on the Clark County Commission, which governs the Las Vegas Valley. “We never bother to say: ‘Where are going? What are we doing?’”

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