The Lethal Hot Air of Summer

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 last week in July is, statistically speaking, normally the hottest all year in the eastern United States. Although the news may be all atwitter about the temperatures, they're actually pretty much what you'd expect on sunny days at the end of July.

The average July high temperature along most of the East Coast from New York on down is around 90 degrees, with the southern portion a bit above and the northern a bit below. Sometimes a sea breeze gets into the Big Apple, but Philly, Baltimore, Washington, and the like are far enough inland that they simply bake.

Given that the last week of July is the warmest in the month, temperatures in 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 average were sunny, some were cloudy, some had rain and some were in-between. It stands to reason that a bright sunny day is going to be warmer than the average--so that 95 degrees is pretty "normal" as long as it doesn't cloud up.

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

Let's get one thing straight. There is no warming trend in U.S. summer temperatures 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 put much new carbon dioxide in the air by then. Further, current planetary temperatures measured by satellites and weather balloons are considerably below their average for the last two decades.

In addition, heat-related mortality is going down. In 1995, Chicago saw several hundred deaths in a July heat wave. But there were 885 heat-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 globe was one degree cooler then!)

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

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

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

Which brings us back to global warming. It should be self-evident that the very technology that enhances the greenhouse effect--the production of electricity--is what saves our lives in the heat of a normal summer. Thousands more would die, as did in 1900, without air conditioning in a world where the enhanced greenhouse effect and dreaded global warming did not exist.

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

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