When he relocated to Austin from New York in 2020, journalist Jeff Goodell knew that his day-to-day experience of the earth’s climate was about to change. What he couldn’t fully appreciate at the time was that he had parachuted into the state at a particularly harrowing moment in its climate history. In this new era, Texas was becoming unmoored from historical climate patterns and veering dangerously into increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather events.  

From melting glaciers to catastrophic floods, instability is a global feature of life in the age of climate change. But in recent years, few places illustrate that volatility more graphically than Texas. For Goodell—a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who has spent decades exploring how climate change is reconfiguring contemporary existence—having a front-row seat to deadly freezes, powerful hurricanes, and a state government that refuses to do much of anything to address them has been not just personally astonishing, but journalistically valuable. 

But Goodell’s knack for being in the right place at the wrong time has never been as apparent as it is right now. His latest book, The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, which publishes on July 11, arrives as a deadly heat dome parks itself over the southern half of the Texas, covering millions in a blanket of brutal heat that has strained the state’s faulty power grid, killed vulnerable Texans, and shattered century-old temperature records.

Goodell’s book is not just an urgent warning, but a bracing examination of climate change in its most essential form—temperature rise. An invisible force whose lethality we tend to overlook, extreme heat is likened to having “the barrel of a gun pointed at you,” Goodell writes, a description that should resonate with any Texan who has recently set foot outside during the middle of the day. Unlike sea level rise or slow-moving storms, more than any other effect of climate change, heat destroys life with an excruciating immediacy that Goodell wants his audience to fully appreciate. 

Unfortunately for that audience, Goodell’s work is also, very likely, a terrifying preview of what’s to come, which partly explains why he maintains there’s no more interesting place to be in the world right now than Texas. This week, I reached Goodell by phone to discuss heat domes, climate change, and what this month’s lethal weather says about the future of life in Texas. 

Texas Monthly: Jeff, perhaps more than anyone else, you’re perfectly positioned to comment on this deadly heat dome. As you’re experiencing it physically, are you also putting it into the larger context of what you’ve learned through your reporting?

Jeff Goodell: Well, for me, it’s very strange because it feels like I’m sort of living in the pages of my book. I spent three years writing about this idea of extreme heat and its consequences and now . . . this heat dome settles over Texas. And so for me, it’s a very spooky, eerie, and disturbing feeling. I’m doing what everybody else is doing, which is, you know, trying to keep cool, hoping that my air-conditioning keeps running, hoping the power does not go out, going to Barton Springs at night and cooling off. But I feel very fortunate that I’m not doing construction work, that I’m not out there laying asphalt on the highways. I’m astonished that we have a governor who—at the exact moment that this heat dome arrived—signed legislation denying water breaks to workers. The surreal quality of this kind of extreme heat, in this moment, is very apparent. 

TM: One of the reasons it’s surreal, I think, is that the nature of this heat feels different than it has in the past. That’s partly due to the dangerous humidity, which you discuss early on in your book, but it’s also about the increasing length of heat waves like the one we’re experiencing, right?

JG: That’s right. I have not lived in Texas my whole life, but I spent a lot of time thinking about heat waves and how they work, and we’re on the sixth or seventh day of this extreme heat wave. So what we’re seeing [are] changes in atmospheric circulation patterns that are connected to the melting of the Arctic. In turn, that’s changing the jet stream and [creating] lots of higher-level atmospheric changes that [trap] hot air in a certain location. And it’s not dissipating as quickly as it used to. It happened over the Pacific Northwest in 2021, where they had their own devastating heat wave. There’s a fundamental shift in how heat waves work compared to twenty-five years ago. Yes, there were hot [stretches] back then, but they only lasted for one or two days before dissipating. When you’re looking at a two-week-long, extreme heat wave, that’s very different. 

TM: Do you think that what we’re experiencing in Texas this month is going to become more frequent? Should we consider this a preview of what’s to come?

JG: Absolutely. As long as we keep burning fossil fuels, and as long as we keep heating up the planet . . . we’re absolutely going to see more heat waves and more extreme heat waves. The only real question is how extreme and how fast the change occurs.

Right now, on the climate science side, there’s a lot of really scary news. Our world is changing faster than even the best scientists predicted a decade ago. This instant, the sea surface temperature in the North Atlantic is quite a bit higher than has ever been measured by humans before. I went to Antarctica two years ago with a bunch of scientists on a research trip for a couple of months, and they thought the region was sort of immune from climate change–induced warming because it’s so cold there, and they were shocked to find that the ocean temperature was rising there as well. A rising ocean temperature around Antarctica could destabilize giant glaciers, which has huge implications for the Gulf Coast here. All of these mechanisms that make our climate system interconnected are more sensitive than we understood, and that includes heat waves. 

TM: Speaking of heat waves, one of the questions you explore in your book was how hot can it get given the amount of carbon dioxide we’ve already pumped into the atmosphere. What do you conclude?

JG: We reached 121 degrees in British Columbia in 2021, right? Imagine that. Could it get to 125 degrees in Austin at some point? No scientist that I’ve talked with could rule out that sort of extreme increase in temperature. We don’t know what we’re really playing with here and how dangerous it can get, but there is no doubt it will get dangerous. 

TM: I’m wondering if there’s any other way to localize predictions for what might happen to Texas over the next decade or so. Do you think people living in this region should consider leaving? 

JG: There’s no safe haven. There’s no place where you can go and be in a bubble and not have climate change affect you. It will affect the kind of crops that are grown, the kind of food you eat, the weather, and if you’re able to travel. So let’s drop the notion that there’s a safe place. There are better places and worse places, certainly, and Texas is one of the places [where] the climate impacts are going to be felt very strongly. We are already seeing the extreme heat that we have right now. The whole Gulf Coast is also very vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surges. Thirty billion just has been approved to build the Ike Dike to protect Houston from hurricanes. There’s going to be a lot of money spent here to try to adapt to the changing climate, and some of it’s going to be money well spent, and some of it’s going to be really foolish and stupid.

TM: In the preface of your book, you describe climate change almost from the perspective of plants, writing about trees “screaming” in their own way as a heat wave descended on the Pacific Northwest in 2021. When did it occur to you to write from the perspective of plant life?

JG: I think one of the challenges of my book was to try to understand heat. My previous book was about sea level rise, which has all kinds of implications for our lives. But nobody is going to die on the beach from sea level rise in Galveston. Our glaciers are melting in Greenland or Antarctica, but nobody is going to die there on the beach. [Sea level rise] has long-term implications for how we live and for storm surges, but it’s really more of a real estate, economic, and migration question. Heat is very different. Heat will kill you. Heat is like the equivalent of a lightning bolt. You can walk outside, think you’re fine, and be dead in a matter of minutes. 

But even beyond that, heat affects the entire operating system of our planet. And so by writing about other animals, other plants, other lives, I really wanted to expand the scope of our understanding of how important heat is and really capture this notion that we live on what has been a “Goldilocks planet”—not too hot, not too cold. That’s all of life on earth, not just you and me and our families and people we love, but everything around us. Every plant, every microbe, every animal, and every flower has evolved in this largely stable temperature zone for the last few million years. But now we’re moving out of that. I want to capture the scope of what we’re dealing with when we talk about climate change. 

TM: Given the undeniable reality of climate chaos since you arrived in Texas in 2020, are you struck by the lack of urgency among the state’s elected officials when it comes to dealing with this issue?

JG: I love Texas. I’m very happy to be here. I have friends and family here, and I’m a big Texas booster. But politically, Texas is in a bad spot. We have a legislature that does not recognize this crisis and take this seriously. We need to make it easier for low-income people to get air-conditioning. We need cooling centers. We need public community sites. We need to get off of fossil fuels. Places like Houston need more money to address flooding. We can build a better world, but we need the political will to do it. And that’s what’s most lacking here in Texas right now, for sure. 

It’s not entirely surprising, because we’re in the belly of the fossil fuel beast in this state. There’s a lot of money flowing through the same industry that is causing this extreme weather. The dichotomy of living in the place that is profiting off the same thing that is destroying it was a very powerful perch from which to write this book. 

TM: And yet you aren’t overly pessimistic about the future of our climate or the future of Texas. Explain yourself!

JG: As bad as it feels outside right now, there’s lots of really great news about how people are addressing climate change, even here in Texas. This state is a leader in renewable energy; wind and solar is booming. One of the reasons we’re not having blackouts right now—despite the high energy demand—is because we have a lot of solar and wind and a lot of batteries backing us up during this extreme heat wave. 

Texas also has some of the best energy and climate experts in the country. You have great climate scientists like Katharine Hayhoe at Texas Tech. She’s a great communicator, she’s outspoken on climate, and she’s also an evangelical Christian. She really has been one of the leaders in understanding how to talk about this to people who aren’t normally part of the conversation. We have great climate scientists like Andrew Dessler at Texas A&M, who’s one of the best at communicating in a much more scientific way. Then we have people like Michael Webber at the University of Texas, the CTO of a cleantech venture fund. Texas was made by energy, and so there’s a lot of really great thinkers here with engineering expertise. That’s one of the reasons why Texas is a leader in renewable energy, even though it doesn’t get talked about enough. With the help of Texans and the expertise they offer, I do think that we’ll figure out a way through this crisis. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.