A viral tweet from anti-LGBTQ activist James Lindsay regarding wet-bulb temperatures aligns with a pattern seen in right-wing influencers’ efforts to undermine public awareness about climate change and extreme heat.
Lindsay, like other conservative media figures, has sought to politicize global environmental initiatives, using climate change denial and delay as tools to combat what they perceive as “cultural marxism.”
On July 17, amidst dangerous heat waves affecting several countries, Lindsay downplayed the seriousness of extremely humid conditions that hinder humans’ ability to sweat and push the limits of survivability. He misinterpreted “wet-bulb” temperature, intentionally misleading his followers.
Terms like “heat index” and “wet-bulb temperature” are becoming more prevalent in media coverage and discussions as hot and humid summers disrupt daily life and pose significant health risks.
According to the National Weather Service, a wet-bulb thermometer measures the temperature with a wet cloth covering. As water evaporates, it cools the thermometer, mimicking how the human body cools itself through sweat. Wet-bulb temperature changes with humidity and is always lower than the more familiar “dry-bulb” temperature. It was developed in the 1950s to prevent heat-related illnesses and casualties in the U.S. armed forces and assess outdoor activity safety in hot weather.
When the wet-bulb temperature reaches a critical point and the air is already saturated with enough water, the body may lose its ability to cool itself through sweating, potentially leading to heat stroke or other adverse health effects, even death. Recent research suggests that a healthy human cannot survive for more than six hours at a wet-bulb temperature of 87 F, even for young people.
Attempts to disrupt conversations about extreme heat are not new. Lindsay’s comment received backlash, with some Twitter users suggesting that wet-bulb measures are a hoax fabricated by the government to instill fear.
Although it is uncertain whether wet-bulb temperatures in the US reached 94 degrees as the tweet suggests, the Washington Post reported that wet-bulb temperatures hovered in the upper 80s to around 90 degrees throughout the southern U.S. on July 17, creating extremely hazardous conditions for developing heat-related illnesses. On July 16, in Iran, the wet-bulb temperature reached 92.7 degrees Fahrenheit.
After the backlash, Lindsay tried to walk back his statement, attributing the tweet to “engagement hacking,” but the intent does not negate the impact of his misleading information.
This is not the first time a right-wing influencer has attempted to sow confusion around terms related to extreme heat. Rush Limbaugh, for example, questioned the legitimacy of the heat index during a 2011 heat wave, suggesting it was a government conspiracy. Right-wing media has consistently pushed climate change denial during heatwaves.
Heat index, similar to wet-bulb, accounts for how hot it feels with relative humidity considered, but it is meant for use in shaded areas.
Lindsay’s and Limbaugh’s comments are clear attempts to dismiss coverage of rising temperatures and extreme heatwaves, hindering climate action, and discouraging basic safety precautions to cope with the heat, which puts lives at risk.
Heat is a silent killer responsible for more deaths than all other weather disasters combined. Driven by climate change, the already dangerous conditions witnessed worldwide in July are expected to worsen. Right-wing media’s efforts to downplay the severity of these effects risk preventing public support for necessary solutions.