Monday, September 19, 2016

It's too damn hot!

I've now been here on the East Coast for nearly two months and it has only been in the last week that day time temperatures, and accompanying humidity, have been low enough for me to imagine running or even thinking well. After decades in the San Francisco Bay Area, I'll admit I'm a Weather Wimp. I don't react well to heat, and especially I hate humidity.

So I'm in instinctive agreement with this study highlighted by Nicholas Kristof.

A clever new working paper by Jisung Park, a Ph.D. student in economics at Harvard, compared the performances of New York City students on 4.6 million exams with the day’s temperature. He found that students taking a New York State Regents exam on a 90-degree day have a 12 percent greater chance of failing than when the temperature is 72 degrees. ...Park finds that when a student has the bad luck to have Regents exams fall on very hot days, he or she is slightly less likely to graduate on time.

Likewise, Park finds that when a school year has an unusual number of hot days, students do worse at the end of the year on their Regents exams, presumably because they’ve learned less. A school year with five extra days above 80 degrees leads students to perform significantly worse on Regents exams.

This is a consequence of climate warming we may not yet have thought about: being hotter makes us stupider. As each successive month breaks temperature records, human societies lose resilience. Again from Kristof:

We just don’t function as well when the mercury goes up. When the temperature rises above 85 degrees, Americans who work outside cut their time in the heat by about an hour. Even in auto factories, most presumably air-conditioned, a week of six days above 90 degrees reduces production by 8 percent.

Perhaps more startling, rising temperatures seem to cause more violence.

“The relationship is really clear,” said Edward Miguel, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the issue. “Extremes in climate lead to more violence, more killing, more war, more land riots in Brazil, more sectarian violence in India. It’s pretty stunning how the relationship between climate and violence holds across the globe.”

I'm old enough to remember when air conditioning was a noisy, seldom used, novelty. People who had it in homes or cars only turned it on as a last resort and harbored a sneaking suspicion that they were somehow breaking a taboo by relying on artificial cooling. No longer. Now such attitudes are simply quaint.Tyler Falk explains:

It wasn't until the beginning of World War II that homes in southern U.S. cities began using air conditioning units. By 1955, one in every 22 American homes had air conditioning. In the South, that number was about 1 in 10... Since this increase in air conditioning use, many of these Southern cities experienced a population boom.

I took a look at the metro areas in the U.S. with more than 1 million people and found which have historically been the hottest, based on the number of cooling degree days per year -- a statistic used to measure how much and how many days the outside temperature in a certain location is above 65 degrees. Using numbers from NOAA, I found that between 1971-2000, six big cities in the South had an average of at least 3,000 cooling degree days. I also compared the 1940 metro population (when available) to the metro population in 2010. From the time just before air conditioning became popular in the South to today, population growth in the region has skyrocketed. This raises the question: would these hot Southern cities be around, at least in their present form, if air conditioning hadn't been invented? 

... With the middle class growing in warm metros in countries like India, demand for air conditioning is increasing. ... Last year, 55 percent of new air conditioners were sold in the Asia Pacific region. Unfortunately, we'll have to take the good (increased comfort) with the bad. That increased demand will also have a major impact on energy use in these global cities. ... the potential cooling demand from Mumbai alone is one-quarter of the demand for the entire United States.

So as the climate heats up, human demand for energy intensive cooling will only increase. It is hard to blame individuals trying to preserve their brainpower.

Now there's an argument for maximum efforts to prevent additional warming now as much as we still can. As we bake and get dumber, what are our chances of reducing runaway carbon pollution? Not good.

Climate scientists are doing their best. So are forward looking civic leaders. Louisville, Kentucky, is the site of an important attempt to cool the city by planting trees, Everywhere, roof gardens and reflective white paint may help reduce urban heat sinks.

But it seems that ultimately, we'll either get off carbon emitting fossil fuels or we'll fry. There are no individual solutions, only society-wide interventions.

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