The Lethal Hot Air of Summer

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I am rather concerned about my elderly father-in-law, who lives in northern Virginia. I just visited him, as Washington's temperatures bubbled into the high 90s. On his television, the summer's first heat-related fatalities were being reported. I noticed that his house seemed unusually warm, and I went over to the window to turn on his air conditioner. "Don't bother," he told me, "it's not working." Without air conditioning, my father-in-law and millions of elderly citizens just like him are at grave risk in this weather. After I write this column, I'm calling Sears and having a new machine delivered pronto.

"This weather" has been in the news for over a week now. The lastweek inJuly is, statistically speaking, normally the hottest all year in theeastern United States. Although the news may be all atwitter about thetemperatures, they're actually pretty much what you'd expect on sunny daysat the end of July.

The average July high temperature along most of the East Coast fromNewYork on down is around 90 degrees, with the southern portion a bit aboveand the northern a bit below. Sometimes a sea breeze gets into the BigApple, but Philly, Baltimore, Washington, and the like are far enoughinland that they simply bake.

Given that the last week of July is the warmest in the month, temperaturesin the lower 90s should be the rule, not the exception. But these "normal"values are composed of 30-year averages. Some days that form that averagewere sunny, some were cloudy, some had rain and some were in-between. Itstands to reason that a bright sunny day is going to be warmer than theaverage--so that 95 degrees is pretty "normal" as long as it doesn't cloudup.

This is the threshold temperature at which elderly deaths begin to takeoff. And, true to form, we've seen the usual spate of stories trying toconflate this mortality, this summer's temperatures and global warmingcaused by pernicious economic activity.

Let's get one thing straight. There is no warming trend in U.S. summertemperatures over the last 80 years. It did warm a bit from 1900 to 1930,but that change surely wasn't because of a greenhouse effect; we hadn't putmuch new carbon dioxide in the air by then. Further, current planetarytemperatures measured by satellites and weather balloons are considerablybelow their average for the last two decades.

In addition, heat-related mortality is going down. In 1995, Chicago sawseveral hundred deaths in a July heat wave. But there were 885heat-related deaths in the Second City in 1955. Want to see true carnage?Go back to 1900, when 10,000 Americans perished in the heat. (The globewas one degree cooler then!)

What's the difference here? Two words: air conditioning.

Air conditioners use more electricity than any other home appliance. On ahot day, they create such demand for electricity that, sometimes, the powerfails. After this, the county coroner isn't far around the corner. In fact,it was a power failure that magnified the 1995 Chicago tragedy. Normallyin a heat wave, the poorer South Side experiences more deaths than theNorth Side. But a power outage in the affluent side of town resulted in apretty equal distribution of fatalities across income classes.

In this summer's heat, Mayor Richard Daley has been exhorting citizens whofeel they cannot afford to run their air conditioners to take advantage ofa federal program designed to subsidize payments in just that eventuality.Somehow I do not believe that every 80 year old has gotten this message andfear that some will die today.

Which brings us back to global warming. It should be self-evident that thevery technology that enhances the greenhouse effect--the production ofelectricity--is what saves our lives in the heat of a normal summer.Thousands more would die, as did in 1900, without air conditioning in aworld where the enhanced greenhouse effect and dreaded global warming didnot exist.

The risk of power failure can be averted by installing new generationcapacity. But every time a new power plant is proposed, someone squawks"global warming." When lack of power causes an outage on a hot day, thatwell-intended protest becomes a lethal weapon.

Therefore, it is somewhat ironic that all proposals to fight global warmingdrastically raise the price of energy and power. The Kyoto Protocol onclimate change requires us to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases(read: use of energy) by 30 to 45 percent by 2008 compared with where wewould be if we just went on as we are. If the price of electricity morethan doubles (a likely scenario according to most experts), how many moreof our elderly will hesitate to turn on the air conditioner until it is toolate? The Kyoto Protocol is a killer.