In Phoenix, a high of 108 degrees Fahrenheit now somehow counts as a respite. On Monday, America’s hottest major city ended its ominous streak of 31 straight days in which temperatures crested past 110. The toll of this heat—a monthly average of 102.7 degrees in July—has been brutal. One woman was admitted to a hospital’s burn unit after she fell on the pavement outside her home, and towering saguaros have dropped arms and collapsed. Over the past month, hospitals filling up with burn and heat-stroke victims have reached capacities not seen since the height of the pandemic.
“Why would anyone live in Phoenix?” You might ask that question to the many hundreds of thousands of new residents who have made the Arizona metropolis America’s fastest-growing city. Last year, Maricopa County, where Phoenix sits, gained more residents than any other county in the United States—just as it did in 2021, 2019, 2018, and 2017.
At its core, the question makes a mystery of something that isn’t a mystery at all. For many people, living in Phoenix makes perfect sense. Pleasant temperatures most of the year, relatively inexpensive housing, and a steady increase in economic opportunities have drawn people for 80 years, turning the city from a small desert outpost of 65,000 into a sprawling metro area of more than 5 million. Along the way, a series of innovations has made the heat seem like a temporary inconvenience rather than an existential threat for many residents. Perhaps not even a heat wave like this one will change anything.
My first morning in Phoenix, more than 20 years ago, the sun broke the horizon two miles up a trail in South Mountain Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the United States. I had arrived the previous night from Michigan, leaving behind the late-March dreariness that passes for spring in the Midwest for several months of research that would become my book, Power Lines. As the sun turned the mountain golden and I stripped down to short sleeves for the first time in months, I realized the Valley of the Sun’s charms.
Outside the summer months, the quality of life in Phoenix is really quite high—a fact that city boosters have promoted stretching back to before World War II. They traded the desiccated “Salt River Valley” for the welcoming “Valley of the Sun.” Efforts to downplay the dangers of Phoenix’s climate go back even further. In 1895, when Phoenix was home to a few thousand people, a local newspaper reported that it had been proved “by figures and facts” that the heat is “all a joke,” because the “sensible temperature” that people experienced was far less severe than what the thermometers recorded. “But it’s a dry heat” has a long history, one in which generations of prospective newcomers have been taught to perceive Phoenix’s climate as more beneficial than oppressive.
Most people surely move to Phoenix not because of the weather, but because of the housing. The Valley of the Sun’s ongoing commitment to new housing development continues to keep housing prices well below those of neighboring California, drawing many emigrants priced out of the Golden State. Subdivisions have popped up in irrigated farm fields seemingly overnight. In 1955, as the home builder John F. Long was constructing Maryvale, then on Phoenix’s western edge, he quickly turned a cantaloupe farm into seven model homes. Five years later, more than 22,000 people lived in the neighborhood; now more than 200,000 do. Even today, the speed of construction can create confusion, as residents puzzle over the location of Heartland Ranch or Copper Falls or other new subdivisions that include most of the 250,000 homes built since 2010.
Even in the summer, you might not always notice just how harsh of a terrain Phoenix can be. Developers engage in a struggle to secure water rights, tapping groundwater aquifers, drawing water from the Colorado River brought to the city by aqueduct, and purchasing water from local farmers. Air-conditioning is the lifeblood of Phoenix, as much a part of the city as the subway system is in New York. In 1961, Herbert Leggett, a Phoenix banker, spoke of his normal summer day to The Saturday Evening Post: “I awake in my air-conditioned home in the morning … I dress and get into my air-conditioned automobile and drive to the air-conditioned garage in the basement of this building. I work in an air-conditioned office, eat in an air-conditioned restaurant, and perhaps go to an air-conditioned theater.”
In the kind of air-conditioned bubbles Leggett described, it is actually possible for people like me, who work indoors, to forget the heat and oppression of Phoenix’s summer—that is, until we have to scurry across a parking lot or cross concrete plazas between buildings. Starting in late April, when high temperatures regularly hit over 90, many residents fire up their AC, using it until October, when highs once again drop into the 80s. At the height of summer, Phoenix becomes virtually an indoor city during the day. Remote car starters become valuable amenities for taking the edge off the heat. Runners wake before dawn to exercise, and dogs are banned from hiking trails in city parks on triple-digit days. With air-conditioning, the benefits of Phoenix outweigh the drawbacks for many residents.
But this lifestyle comes with a cost. Electricity consumption has soared in Phoenix, almost doubling in the average home from 1970 to today. At the height of its operation, Four Corners Power Plant, only one of five such coal-fired power plants built north of Phoenix to help power the region’s growth, emitted 16 million tons of carbon annually, equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 3.4 million cars. Even today, with most coal-fired generation retired, Phoenix relies heavily on carbon-emitting natural gas for its electricity. Both the past and present of Phoenix’s energy worsens the very heat its residents are trying to escape.
Air-conditioning protects most people, but especially as the heat intensifies, those without it are left incredibly vulnerable. Elderly women living alone, many of whom struggle to maintain and pay for air-conditioning, are particularly susceptible, accounting for the majority of indoor heat-related deaths. Unhoused people, whose population in Phoenix has increased by 70 percent in the past six years, suffer tremendously and make up much of the death toll. One unhoused man recently compared sitting in his wheelchair to “sitting down on hot coals.”
This heat wave will end, but there will be another. Still, the horror stories of life in 115 degrees is hardly guaranteed to blunt Phoenix’s explosive growth. There are currently building permits for 80,000 new homes in the Phoenix metro area that have not yet commenced construction—homes that will require more water, more AC, and more energy.
But in a sense, nothing about Phoenix is unusual at all. The movement from air-conditioned space to air-conditioned space that Leggett described—and the massive energy use that makes it all run—is now typical in a country where nearly 90 percent of homes use air-conditioning. Clothing companies such as Land’s End advertise summer sweaters that “will come to your rescue while you’re working hard for those eight hours in your office, which might feel like an icebox at times.” And heat has claimed lives in “temperate” cities such as Omaha, Seattle, and Boston. Indeed, one 2020 study concluded that the Northeast had the highest rate of excess deaths attributable to heat.
“Why would anyone live in Phoenix?” serves as nothing more than a defensive mechanism. It makes peculiar the choices that huge numbers of Americans have made, often under economic duress—choices to move to the warm climates of the Sun Belt, to move where housing is affordable, to ignore where energy comes from and the inequalities it creates, and, above all, to downplay the threats of climate change. In that way, Phoenix isn’t the exception. It’s the norm.