A heat dome in Texas. Wildfire smoke polluting the air in the East and Midwest. The signs are everywhere that our children’s summers will look nothing like our own. In this episode, we talk with the climate writer Emma Pattee about how hot is too hot to go outside. The research is thin and the misconceptions are many—but experts are quickly looking into nuances of how and why children suffer in the heat, so we can prepare for a future that’s already here.
Pattee grew up partly in a tent in the woods with the trees as her friends. And she expected her kids would do the same. But as a climate writer, she is realizing more quickly than the rest of us that we already need to let go of what we imagined summer might look like for our children.
“What climate change does is: It makes us realize that our blueprint is fantasy. It is no longer reality. And our children will not live the lives that we have lived. Our children are gonna live drastically different lives than we have lived.”
The following is a transcript of the episode:
Emma Pattee: In the 30 minutes between when the bus drops off all the kids and the parent picks up their kid, they’re just pouring water consistently over these kids to stop them from getting heat illness.
Do I want that for my kid? These become the difficult questions.
Hanna Rosin: I’m Hanna Rosin, and this is Radio Atlantic. We have a lot of romantic ideas about childhood, and especially about what childhood should look like in the summer. Kids mucking around in ponds, finding tadpoles. Nature camp. City kids learning outdoor skills so they won’t be totally useless in the apocalypse.
But then, like a lot of romantic ideas, they sometimes run up against … reality. Which these days means it’s too hot to muck around in ponds, or even go outside sometimes. This summer: 107 in Texas. 105 in Louisiana. And a couple of summers ago, a freak heat wave so dangerous that Emma Pattee, who is a climate writer, got trapped in her house with a new baby for days. And her fellow moms in Portland basically never recovered.
Rosin: So Emma, you told me that you were on your Facebook moms’ group one day. And what happened?
Pattee: So, you know, I’m a mom. Obviously you cannot be a mom without being part of your local Facebook moms’ group. And last summer we would have these hot days, and I would just see these Facebook groups explode. You know, “How hot is too hot to have my kid outside?”
Or the summer-camp counselors saying that they’re sending the kids home because of the heat: “But I don’t think it’s that hot. You know, what do I do?” Or the opposite: “The summer camp is saying 104 is the cutoff. That’s too hot.” Moms are posting photos of their kids, you know, these sweaty little kids, like, “Is this heat stroke?”
And it just was this big moment for me; nobody knew what was happening. Nobody knew what to do. Something dangerous was occurring, and nobody had any answers.
Rosin: Well, it sounds like people didn’t know if it was dangerous or not. Like before they could even get to dangerous, they were just in information-less panic. Because people essentially have this idea in their heads: Well, it’s nice. Kids are supposed to be outside. It’s summer; they’re not in school.
And yet, there were all these indicators that that was maybe not the right thing to do. So you’re trapped between this idea you have of what kids should be doing in the summer—and your worry and panic that this is really harmful. So is that the first time you’d seen the moms’ group get activated in the summer like that?
Pattee: Yeah. And I live in the Pacific Northwest—we have a very outdoor culture. And I’ve just started seeing, year after year, that culture is changing. Now my kids get invited to indoor birthday parties. You drive by a playground in the middle of summer, and it’s empty. I started to see these kinds of indicators all around me. And it became clear to me this was a topic I was really interested in.
In places where it’s very, very hot, there are behavioral adaptations that have taken place over centuries and lifetimes. The culture itself has developed around extreme heat.
Rosin: You mentioned that you had a new baby during the heat wave. So can you say more? Like what happened?
Pattee: Yeah. I had a baby. A/C blasting. The issue was: Would the A/C be sufficient enough that I could stay home? It was 99 degrees, and the next day it was like 95 degrees, and the next day it was like 100 degrees. The next day it was like 102 degrees. And it just kinda went on like that.
Already, having a baby is a very intense experience. Big weather events can bring up really intense emotional and mental challenges. And I had this experience of having my second kid —I, as a climate writer, obviously had incredibly conflicted feelings about having a second kid.
I’m holding this tiny little baby, and I’m sitting in the dark, and all the shades are drawn and the A/C is blasting. It’s so loud. And I just sat that way all day, every day thinking, What have I done?
Rosin: Yeah. I mean, it’s been a while since I had my babies, but why can’t you go outside with the baby in the heat?
Pattee: Babies cannot regulate their own temperature, and they don’t sweat efficiently the way that older children learn to and that adults then obviously can. I could only go outside with the baby at 6 a.m., and we would come back in at 7 a.m. And we would not leave the house again until the following day at 6 a.m.
Rosin: Oh my God. That is very claustrophobic. Do you remember your state of mind during that period?
Pattee: Dark. Yeah. I mean, I think it was exacerbated by having this older kiddo who is like, I wanna go to the park. I wanna go play. And he’s in our living room, he is looking through the window, and he’s watching the neighbor kids jumping on a pogo stick.
And I’m having to explain to him, “You cannot go outside.” And he doesn’t understand. And I’m like, “It’s too hot.” Even now he does this—you know, he will open the front door and put his little hand out and say, “Mom, it’s not too hot.”
You know, I’m not gonna obviously exaggerate. People will go through a lot of worse things every single day. But it was not something I had expected. And I think that took me by surprise.
Rosin: Yeah, I mean when we had the smoke come in from the wildfires in Canada recently, we got an email from the school saying “All outside activities have been suspended.” So I guess we on the East Coast also had our first taste of Maybe our kids’ summer is not gonna look like the ones we had.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you grew up and what your relationship with nature in the woods was?
Pattee: Sure. I grew up on 40 acres in southern Oregon. I grew up deep in the woods, and for about one long summer, we lived in a big army tent on a wooden platform. And then, sort of slowly, my dad built a wood cabin. And at first there wasn’t running water. For a while there wasn’t a great working toilet.
So I spent my entire summer just kind of wandering in the woods, and I would go on hikes. I was really into tracking animals. Nature was very alive. I have this strong connection with this particular tree, and, you know, this particular field.
And I had this also this sense of like, Oh, this is my land. As everyone says in their Tinder profiles: “I love nature.” Instead of this kind of large, anonymous “nature,” it was so specific to this piece of land.
Rosin: You think of little kids having relationships with stuffed animals. Like, This tree has a personality. It knows me. I know it. Like, it was as intimate?
Pattee: Exactly. That it was like the stuffed animals of childhood.
Rosin: As you said, you had your own kids. And how did you transfer this upbringing to them?
Pattee: Now I live in Portland, in a pretty urban area. And it’s been very interesting, because I did not ever question that my kids would grow up the way that I had. I always thought, Of course they’ll wander alone in the woods. Of course they’ll run around barefoot, and we’ll go camping, and we’ll go hiking, and we’ll go swimming. But so far really that has not been the experience.
My [first] kiddo was born in 2018, and in 2020 COVID happened and we all went inside. And then we had our worst wildfire season. And I think since we have had a worse one, and I stayed inside for almost a week on end—like duct-taping the windows because the smoke was so severe.
And then we had, in 2021, the heat dome, and hundreds of people died. A heat dome is essentially when you have extremely high temperatures that do not go away—that stay consistently high. So, a key to surviving extreme heat is that it will cool off, and your body will be able to cool off before it gets hot again the next day.
And once again, children really could not leave the house at all. And then the following summer, I had a baby in a heat wave. So, you know, it’s been … not the childhood I had imagined for them.
Rosin: It’s not clear what you would’ve done without all these disasters, but it sounds like you didn’t even have the chance to ask yourself that question.
Pattee: Yeah; I sort of came to reality when I had my second child and realized, Oh, they’re gonna spend the majority of their summers indoors, and I need to prepare for that now emotionally and logistically. The question really is like: Who are we without nature? Who are my kids going to be if they do not spend their summers walking through trees?
And then I think you can expand that question to humanity at large and ask: Who are we going to be as we start to sever our relationship to the natural world?
Rosin: Okay; before we get to those big philosophical questions, I would like to take care of some of the basics. Because people are experiencing a heat dome in Texas this summer. Like: What do we actually know about “How hot is too hot for children?”
Pattee: So the data that we have shows that ER visits go up, obviously, during extreme heat. There’s certainly, you know, cognitive performance issues that come up in extreme heat. Medical professionals in emergency rooms and clinicians don’t always know what they’re looking at when they see heat illness.
It is possible that we are missing some heat deaths, because they don’t look how we expect. And I predict that over the next 10 years, our understanding and sophistication about tracking heat death is gonna change, and the numbers are gonna be higher than what we had understood.
Rosin: And so is there any data that gives us guidance on what to watch for or what to avoid?
Pattee: What I found was there’s so much that we do not know about kids and heat. And the pediatrician whom I interviewed described it as being in the dark ages, [with] what we understand about children in heat. And the main reason for that is just because it’s very hard to justify doing heat studies on children. Like, we cannot stick them in a sauna and see who comes out.
So much of our data is like being extrapolated from other areas, and that leaves a lot of room for confusion.
Rosin: Yeah. So have there been any studies done that we could look at?
Pattee: No, there have not been studies done that would give us an exact answer of how hot is too hot. I spoke with Dr. Aaron Bernstein, who’s a pediatrician and is also an expert on children and climate.
He talked about this frustrating challenge—when you know something is happening as an expert, but you cannot locate it in the data. He has gone back and looked through emergency-room visits through many, many, many heat waves. And he cannot locate what he knows is happening, which is that more kids are getting sick.
Is that because their parents aren’t taking them in? Is it because their parents aren’t identifying it as heat illness? Is it because they’re not getting that sick? And so, what’s best is for them to just stay home, and then there’s no record of it. So there is not, right now, reliable data around exactly what happens to kids during heat waves and during extreme heat. What we are starting to understand is that for a long time, the medical field thought that only children who were athletes and only very ill children were sensitive to heat, and that you had to be running around outside to be sensitive to heat. That is not true.
There also was, for a long time, this idea that one size fits all: “If my kid did fine in 95 degrees, then your kid should do fine.” And really, what doctors are starting to understand is that there’s so much nuance in that. It’s like, What’s the humidity? Is the child walking through a city or a forest? How hydrated were they the day before? What was the temperature of their bedroom the night before? Like, that’s going to play into if your child gets heat illness. And so of course some children are going to be much more sensitive than others.
I didn’t realize if you were taking a stimulant, you are much more sensitive to heat illness. And you might think, Well, what does that have to do with kids? But there are millions of kids who are being medicated for ADHD taking stimulants every single day, and whose parents may not even realize that there is this sensitivity.
Rosin: Wow. I mean, listening to you, I feel simultaneously more educated and more confused. If I were a camp director, or even a parent of little children, is there any reliable guidance or line that they can stick to to make these kinds of decisions?
Pattee: Yeah; I was impressed by how the camp directors that I spoke with, even though they were not following any sort of government rule, they were all very savvy. They follow something called the heat index, and that combines the humidity level with the temperature to let you know when it’s too dangerous to be outside.
There is a lot of great knowledge about very dangerous heat: heat that’s dangerous for everyone. I think it’s the gray area where you start to get a little bit more iffy, like, “At what temperature are we gonna start seeing behavioral issues from kids?” Or, “At what temperature are 15 percent of the kids gonna be susceptible to heat illness, but the rest are gonna be fine? Is that enough to send all kids home early?” You know, these are very big logistics challenges.
Rosin: Got it. Is there a number, by the way? Like, is there a bright line at 104 degrees which is not good for anyone?
Pattee: There really is not a number. And I can see that my insistence on finding that number was speaking to my misunderstanding of this issue—that I think it would be more dangerous to have a set number.
Rosin: Oh, interesting.
Pattee: Because it would allow people to think this is a simple issue, and it’s not. What we need is more education around extreme heat and what heat illness looks like. I think that’s gonna be more important than trying to come up with a hard and fast number that will work across all situations, all ages, and all regions. Because we will never find that.
Rosin: Just as we’re talking about heat, we’re only talking about kids in nature — but actually the things I have read talk a lot about city kids. Particularly kids of color, kids who are poor, kids who don’t have air conditioning. That’s a heat issue, which is very relevant to what you talked about in terms of education and how hot is too hot.
Pattee: Yeah. Researchers have found something called an “urban heat island,” which is essentially what happens when people live in areas where there is so much asphalt, and there are no trees. And what they found is that in one city the temperature can vary as much as 20 degrees.
And so if in Portland we had a 95-degree day, there might be a child who’s being exposed to 20 degrees above that—and his parent is thinking, Well, it’s 95 degrees. Go out and play.
Rosin: So the question is: What’s the number on your street? Do you have air conditioning?
Pattee: I mean, air conditioning is a perfect example of inequality in action, because families of color are much less likely to have air conditioning. And so then you reach this double whammy—where you’re living in an area that is so much hotter than the rest of your city, and you don’t have access to air conditioning.
These are incredibly troubling things that are gonna become sort of the reality of our summers, if they aren’t already. And in these transition years is when things, I think, are gonna get pretty weird.
Rosin: You mean, climate change is already warping our reality? And our kids’ realities? But we just haven’t psychologically caught up to that yet?
Pattee: Absolutely. Yes. This is about adaptation happening in real time.
Rosin: Okay; so here you are, coming to consciousness that things are happening and things are changing. And that we’re just a little behind in adapting. And you visited a summer camp with an environmental educator. Can you tell us more about that?
Pattee: Yeah. So I had the chance to meet with Tony Deis, and he is the co-founder of Trackers. Trackers is one of the biggest summer camps in Oregon. And they had made the decision to rent out an empty department store in a large indoor shopping mall, into a summer camp haven.
Pattee: And we’re walking through the linoleum floors and the fluorescent lighting, and it’s completely empty. There’s still clothes hangers here and there, and some signage up and stuff. It was interesting, because I had gone to the shopping mall as a teenager with my friends. And so I’m walking through this empty department store, and I suddenly realized that it is the Marshall’s that I shopped at as a teenager and that I bought makeup at.
And I’m having this intense memory of being a teenager in this store. And of course, now it’s a summer camp. And he’s saying, like, “Here’s the ax-throwing range, and here’s where we’re gonna do art, and here’s the climbing wall.”
It was chilling, because I, at the same time, was looking for summer camps for my kid. So I was all too aware that I was going to be that customer who sent my kid to that camp.
Rosin: Ugh. I mean, I can just imagine the scene of like, he’s juggling and trying to make it seem fun—“And we’re gonna have art over here”—and you’re slowly dying inside.
Pattee: He’s in an impossible situation.
And I felt for him—this person who, you know, is a savvy outdoor survivalist. And I could tell that this was a very, very hard decision for him. And I respected that.
I think that he sees the future, and he’s trying to get ahead of it. And I think that it’s actually a really smart plan, which is, you know, “Let’s adapt.” Now they have this backup location—so they’re still gonna have outdoor camps, but if there’s bad wildfire smoke, their kids can go throw axes.
I mean, you got that message from your school last week saying there won’t be any outdoor activities. But what if they said, “Oh, we’re moving all of our outdoor activities into this awesome, giant play space.” Of course you would prefer that for your kid.
Rosin: I guess? Maybe?
Pattee: I think that there’s a part of us that does not want to face what is happening in our world. And so we don’t face it by ignoring it, and we end up in much more dangerous and messy situations.
And it is incredibly painful to face it. And you get pushback from people who do not want to face that summer is different, right? Like, if you host an indoor party for your child in August, which I have done, you will hear from everyone: “That is crazy.” And your own kid will ask you, “Why can’t I have it at the park?”
And so I think that it takes a brave person to say, This is the future. You may not like it, but it’s here, and I’m going to plan for it.
Rosin: When I read your writing about children and heat and summer camp, the first place my mind went, without even knowing you, was, Oh, Emma’s an environmentalist who’s looking for ways to make us all pay attention to climate change. Because she knows by invoking the children and worry about the children, we’ll all jump to attention.
True or false?
Pattee: I’m that mom at the playground who talks about climate change, and nobody will stand by me.
But if you talk about, you know, “My kiddo’s birthday is in August; are you guys doing indoor or outdoor parties?”—you can get into a one-hour-deep discussion that will end with climate change, that will end with a parent saying, “Man, I have an August birthday, and I always had an outdoor birthday party.” Or like, “Man, I wonder about the future.” And so I’m always looking for an inroad.
And if you meet people with the concerns of their everyday life, like summer camp, you can grab a moment of their attention.
Rosin: Oh, that’s so interesting. It’s absolutely true. You’re getting them at a place where they care and can pay attention, and where it’s really under their skin. It’s close to home. And then you can sort of tiptoe your way through the bigger issues.
You said earlier that you grew up in the woods and then moved to the city. When did you start to care about climate change as an adult?
Pattee: I mean, I’ve always been pretty aware of climate change. You know, I was a teenager in the years of the Prius. And my mom once actually backed our van down a hill trying to pick up a piece of Styrofoam and completely totaled the car, because that was her dedication to getting that Styrofoam off the road. So I grew up with An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary that Al Gore did about climate change, and this idea that we need to get off fossil fuels. And yet, climate change never really bothered me in the sense of—I never shed a tear about it. It didn’t keep me up at night. I didn’t spend a lot of my time thinking about it.
Rosin: Like it felt far away. Like it felt like a thing that, you know, you should rally—like picking up trash on the street—but not anything with emotional heft.
Pattee: Absolutely. And I think you can always compare it to your hair. Like, Do I spend more time worried about my hair or climate change? And when I look at that, nope: definitely cared more about my hair all those years. And so I think that’s always a good bar to know how much you care about current topics.
And then I had a child and I went to a moms’ group, a postpartum moms’ group. My kid was three weeks old. And a woman said, “I grew up in Miami, and I’m realizing that by the time my child is an adult, Miami will be underwater.” I was like, What is she talking about? That’s not true. These crazy moms.
And then that night I woke up and I thought, like, Is that true? And I Googled it, and I can say that within about five minutes, I found out that that was true. And that her concerns were not a mom being crazy, but were very legitimate, scientifically backed concerns.
And I felt such existential panic. I saw in this brief moment so clearly that climate change is completely real and terrifying. A very profound threat to our species. And that I had been doing lip service to it all those years.
And so I had this very profound wake up, and once you see it, you really can’t unsee it.
Rosin: Yeah; I’ve been around people who have gone through that. There’s just such profound loss in My children will not have access to the things that I had access to. Like, the continuity of generations is suddenly broken. And there’s just something really scary about that. Is that why it happened in that kind of atmosphere with other moms?
Pattee: I think there is something about having a child that can bring you very face-to-face with climate change. Because I think it gives you a context to think about the future. Like before I had a kid, I never thought about 30 years from now. What? Who even knows what’s gonna happen? That’s bizarre.
And as soon as you have a kid, you think, I wonder what the world’s gonna be like in 30 years. I wonder what my kid’s gonna be doing. I wonder where my kid’s gonna live. You have this urgency to thinking about the future, but you also have this blueprint for the future.
And I think what climate change does is: It makes us realize that our blueprint is fantasy. It is no longer reality. And our children will not live the lives that we have lived. Our children are gonna live drastically different lives than we have lived. And having a child can put that into sharp focus.
Rosin: Maybe we should end on the coyote story? I’m not sure if it will inspire people or depress them. For me it did both. So, can you retell the story that the camp director told you as you were walking around that fluorescent-lighting place that used to be a Marshall’s?
Pattee: So, you know, toward the end of our tour, I kinda sheepishly asked him, “You’re like this total outdoors guy. Isn’t there a part of you that kind of flinches at the idea of keeping kids inside this fluorescent-lit, air-conditioned indoor shopping mall?” And he said that at first he was like, Oh, no way. A team member had suggested it.
And he said, “There’s just no way that will ever happen.” And then he kind of came around to the idea, because of all this severe weather. And then he’d had this realization, which is that a coyote doesn’t look at things as “nature” or “not nature.” Right? A coyote looks at everything as nature. And so what he was gonna do is just be that coyote, and look at the Marshall’s as nature.
Rosin: Wow. It’s a really calming and beautiful idea. It has a lot of resignation in it, but it also has a little bit of optimism in it. And I don’t know how to feel about it. Have you thought about it more since he said that?
Pattee: Yeah. I thought it was beautiful. I instantly thought He’s right—but standing in that Marshall’s, you know, every cell in my body was saying “No.”
Rosin: Of course. I bet. I mean, the big, big philosophical question that’s in your head was, Who are we without nature? And so hearing that coyote story, I feel like that is an answer to that question. Like possibly, we’re people who live in a different kind of nature, or we have redefined nature.
And I wonder about these camps, thinking about adaptation, if you’ve landed anywhere with a “Who are we without nature?” question.
Pattee: You know, as part of my journey through climate grief to some kind of reconciliation, I think I have had to become very resigned and excited about the concept of adaptation and evolution. And to see that things that I thought of as forever—things like nature, things like walking in the woods—that I cannot really see as separate from my identity.
To see that those are just temporary states of being, and that things that I think of as absolute are not absolute, and to try to find some excitement about what the future might hold, even if it looks nothing like anything I’ve ever known.
Rosin: I love it, because I feel like it takes something natural, which is this idea of the cycles of nature. Like, everything changes; everything becomes other things. We’re obviously mutually inhabiting a very optimistic space right now, but it takes that “cycles of nature” idea and it rolls with it. So I feel like that’s maybe the best choice we have right now.
Pattee: Yeah. I mean it is, right? Like, I was thinking today about how we all think of adaptation as this kind of sexy thing some tech bro is gonna create for us. Like, This was the past, and now we’ve adapted, and this is the future. And they unveil whatever it is: the AI garden.
But this is adaptation. Adaptation is a summer-camp headquarters in Marshall’s. Adaptation is moms on a Facebook group saying, “Is it too hot to go to the park?” Like, it’s messy. It’s brutal. And we’re in it.
Rosin: Yeah. And it’s done day to day. And we’re in it, exactly. We’re in it.