Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Common sense wilts in the heat

The thermostat is expected to reach 39 C today in Princeton, with a heat index in the mid 40s C.
You can convert that to Fahrenheit here. I’ve decided from now on to report only in Celsius, not out of stubborn Canadian-ness, but because it is absolutely ridiculous this country refuses to adopt the more sensible temperature scale used by the rest of the planet. Er, excuse me, sir, how many furlongs is it to New York?

There are three other aspects of the response to the current heatwave that grate at me:

1. Last week, a group of top hurricane experts on both sides of the global warming debate released statement reminding people that global warming is not the only problem:

“While the debate on this issue is of considerable scientific and societal interest and concern, it should in no event detract from the main hurricane problem facing the United States: the ever-growing concentration of population and wealth in vulnerable coastal regions…. We are optimistic that continued research will eventually resolve much of the current controversy over the effect of climate change on hurricanes. But the more urgent problem of our lemming-like march to the sea requires immediate and sustained attention.”

A similar argument needs to made about the heatwave in eastern North America. With near-record temperatures and many record nighttime temperatures - the second being a staple of climate change predictions - a lot of people want to lay all the blame for what happens as a consequence of the heatwave solely on global warming.

Over a hundred people died in the recent California heat wave, more deaths have been reported as this week's heat swept across the the central US, the northeastern US and southern Canada. And people will probably die as a result of today’s heat, but the coroner will not write global warming on the death certificate. Not because it is impossible to definitely attribute a particular heat wave to a long-term warming trend, but because even if you could, the deaths are still preventable.

The lack of public attention to the danger of heatwaves is the subject of a smart, short article on Slate by Eric Klinenberg, author of the book "Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago" about the 1995 heatwave that claimed 739 lives in Chicago:

“…dangerous heat always comes announced, and it's fairly easy to prevent human damage. Victims of heat tend to wilt gradually, alone and at home, out of touch with family, friends, and social-service providers who could save their lives simply by treating them with water or bringing them to an air-conditioned place.”

The good news is we can learn from past mistakes. Almost 15, 000 people died in France during the 2003 heat wave, mostly elderly without air conditioning and family support. When another (slightly cooler) heat wave struck last month, the French government was ready with a heat awareness plan that included cooling stations, media campaigns and more staff in hospitals. There were still more than 60 deaths across France: hardly forgivable, but a vast improvement over the 2003 disaster.

So we’re in the middle of a heat wave. Is it global warming? Maybe, but right now, even I think that’s wrong question.

2. The radio announcer this morning suggested turning the thermostat up to roughly 25.56 C (again, look it up if you have to) in order to ease pressure on the power grid. The recommendation, coming directly from the local and state government, reflect a complete misunderstanding of the concept of conservation. If you can do that today, why not every day (hello Princeton?)? If you are releasing such a statement, why not mention the energy and cost savings of always keeping you’re a/c set at the higher, but still very comfortable, temperature?

Given the lack of conservation, the one program that makes a bit of sense is the “Peak Saver” started by some city power grids like Toronto Hydro. Basically, they install a switch on your central a/c that the power system flips on and off to help manage electricity demand. You'll barely notice any difference in the household temperature. The Toronto program probably saved the city, which has been hopeless at curbing energy use, from setting a energy use record yesterday.

3. Finally, during heat waves, the public information campaigns need to urge people to cut down on unnecessary car trips. These hot, humid days are naturally susceptible to high smog levels, people should be reminded to not make it any worse.

2 comments:

Gatsby said...

Admittedly, it is strange that the US hasn't switched to a scale the entire world uses. That being said, I don't think Celsius makes any more sense than Fahrenheit (although it is easier to spell).
Yes 0 and 100 make more sense as melting point of ice and boiling point of water, but Fahrenheit gives you more resolution without having to use decimals.
I would argue that metric makes thousands of times more sense than the English system.

tim said...

If you really want to be scientific why not use Kelvins?