Hazy, Hot, and Hubris

Summer is global warming season! Even though we know, and you know, and we know that you know that increasing greenhouse gases have and will primarily warm cold places in winter, summer is the season when everyone is thinking about warming. Each summer seems worse than the last, this summer's heat wave is hotter and longer than last summer's record heat wave, and more all-time temperature extremes are being broken than ever before. Like mass UFO sightings and alien abductions, the power of mass hallucination is truly palpable.

And the media, ever anxious to leap on a heat wave story like a cat on a cricket, have no doubt broken the binding at the "H" page on their thesauruses. Here are a few snippets from only two short but hot articles from Thursday, August 9: "The nation baked"; "blistering temperatures"; "scorching temperatures"; "the temperature soared"; "oppressive heat wave"; "hot as a furnace"; "Midwestern cities were...boiling"; "a scorching week."

Of all the accompanying commentary, our favorite appeared in a Reuters story by Grant McCool(!), who interviewed lifeguard Christopher Hercules on a subway platform in Times Square: "'It's much hotter down here than it is outside. But I'm getting used to it,' said Hercules." Well, compared to cleaning out the Augean Stables, standing in a hot subway in Times Square is no doubt an improvement. Similar, but an improvement nevertheless.

Here's more—from the ABC News a day earlier: "The hot weather has been blamed in the deaths of several people this week, including a man in a locked car in Oak Park, Mich., a roofer in Madison County, Ky., and a man and woman in their 70s in the Philadelphia area. In Wisconsin, health officials believe the heat has played a role in 10 deaths in the past three weeks. Missouri has had 22 heat-related deaths so far this year."

What they failed to report is what's truly amazing about this heat wave. Namely, that it is having virtually no impact. Thank goodness death rates aren't correlated with superfluous adjective usage or susceptibility to same. Then people would be dropping like flies from the blistering, baking, scorching, soaring, searing, boiling, oppressive heat. Furthermore, in nearly every case, those few heat-related tragedies were preventable.

No, people aren't dying in droves, primarily because cheap electricity is available to power their air-conditioners. You realize, though, that one insidious purpose of the Kyoto Protocol is to make electricity in the United States more expensive, forcing Americans to reallocate their dollars into the energy sector and thereby giving European nations a competitive economic advantage. That would probably result in some energy conservation, but it would certainly result in more deaths during heat waves.

We can hear the few skeptics out there bemoaning this notion as typical WCR hyperbole. Well, "Mike," take a look at a recent article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society by Mike Palecki, Stan Changnon, and Ken Kunkel of the Midwestern Regional Climate Center. They cited the Associated Press story of a Chicagoan in 1995 who refused a free air-conditioner and was later found dead. He told a neighbor, "Why should I make my electric bill higher? The fan is enough." Why indeed?

Palecki compared impacts of the 1999 Midwestern heat wave with the infamous 1995 Chicago heat wave that purportedly caused over 700 deaths (although we believe the real number was closer to 400, which is nevertheless a substantial total (see WCR, Vol. 1, No. 1). It turns out that the two events were remarkably similar climatologically. Figure 1 is a plot of the "apparent temperature" or Heat Index, a combination of temperature and humidity that estimates how warm a person "feels" on a summer day. The 1995 event showed a gradual run-up from below-normal summer apparent temperatures around 25°C (77°F) to exceptionally high apparent temperatures of 48°C (118°F) during the worst part of the event. The 1999 heat wave started out warmer, built to a peak that was briefly punctuated by a cold front passage, then rebounded to heat indices that fell but a tad short of 1995 levels. And in both cases, during the peak period of heat stress, the power went out over large areas!

Figure 1. The progression of daily heat index values for the Chicago heat waves of 1995 and 1999. Although these two records are similar, the 1995 event was reported to have killed 700 people, while only 110 heat-related deaths were reported in 1999. Apparently, Chicagoans adapted.

The 1995 heat wave (purportedly) produced 700 deaths in Chicago. The 1999 death tally was 110. Two comparable heat waves with comparable utility outages. Why did deaths drop by over 600 percent? Adaptation. This time, Chicago weather service issued heat wave warnings well in advance. Press releases reminded everyone of the 1995 death toll. "Cooling centers" were opened to the public throughout the city with access via free bus service. And municipal workers and police officers checked on elderly residents. Those simple measures—adaptations made over a short period of time—saved literally hundreds of lives.

Regrettably, most of the 110 fatalities that did occur could have been avoided. According to Palecki:

More than 70 percent of the Cook County and St. Louis heat-related [victims] were found dead or dying in stifling hot apartments; many of these apartments had air-conditioning units, but the systems were not running. In St. Louis, 16 of the 36 who died in that city were in dwellings with inactive air conditioners, and 15 of the 36 never asked for external help. This was a commonly reported situation in Chicago. There were also several cases reported in Chicago of people who refused help and were later found dead. It is likely that stress caused during the heat wave contributed indirectly to a number of deaths in succeeding months throughout the Midwest.

It is irrefutable that people with access to air-conditioning are unlikely to die during heat waves. And the best way to save lives is to provide people with low-cost power to run those air-conditioners.

People without air conditioning are more likely to die during heat waves. The best way to make death more likely is to make power prohibitively expensive.

How many people will the Kyoto Protocol kill? We'll know the answer in 20 years or so. Apparently, 178 countries have agreed to run this little experiment. Fortunately, the United States is the "control." Will the death toll be worth reducing global temperature by two one-hundredths of a degree in the next half-century?

Reference:

Palecki, M.A., S.A. Changnon, and K.E. Kunkel, 2001. The nature and impacts of the July 1999 heat wave in the midwestern United States: Learning from the lessons of 1995, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 82, 1353–1367.