July 28, 2005

Giving Fossil Fuels Their Due

Filed under: Health Effects, Heat Waves

When it comes to the weather, it’s time to stop global whining.

Surely it is an international pastime to complain about the weather, but making global implications out of a local hot spell is a bit much. Consider the editorial in the July 26, 2005 New York Times, headlined “A Few Degrees.” The idea is that the recent heatwave that started in the American Southwest and that has been slowly spreading eastward across the rest of the country is an example of how anthropogenic global warming, although it may only raise temperatures “a few degrees,” subtly makes life miserable for everyone.

The Times editorial concludes:

“Climatologists argue that the baseline changes caused by global warming will probably amount to only a few degrees, but what is most worrying about a heat wave like this is witnessing the effect that a shift of a few degrees can have. Temperatures like those in Phoenix and Las Vegas last week are a reminder that the threshold of human tolerance for heat is as absolute as our tolerance for cold. We survive at such high temperatures only with huge expenditures of energy. Those who cannot afford the energy run the risk of death.”

The Times seems to imply that we have created a world through the use of cheap and plentiful energy whose weather would be would be unsurvivable if it weren’t for the availability of cheap and plentiful energy. Talk about a positive feedback loop with negative implications! The more fossil fuels we burn, the worse the weather becomes and the more fossil fuels we have to burn to protect ourselves from it. Eventually, the poorer individuals (or, presumably, nations of the world) that can’t afford energy “run the risk of death.”

To think that the evils of influencing daily weather outweigh the benefits that have been derived from fossil fuel usage ignores the fact that fossil fuels supply about 85% of the energy used around the world. Life spans have doubled in the fossil-fuel intensive nations in the last 100 years. Some crop yields have quintupled. In the United States, constant-dollar per capita income has increased over tenfold since 1900.

Conditions prior to the Industrial Revolution (the period when fossil fuels grew to dominance as our source of energy) were quite a bit different than today’s. There were 750 million people on earth (vs. 6.5 billion), there was no electricity, no planes, no trains, no automobiles. Medical techniques were crude (to say the least) and dentistry medieval. There were few hospitals, poor sanitation, poor hygiene, poor nutrition. Infant mortality rates were high and overall life expectancy was low. There were no grocery stories, no malls, no ball fields, no soccer moms. Leisure and recreation were virtually unheard of. Famine and plagues were common. There were few large cities as society was primarily agrarian, subsisting of family farms supported by endless back-breaking manual labor. Houses were poorly constructed, barely keeping out the wind and rain, with one room and a dirt floor. There was no indoor plumbing. Toilets were a bucket or a hole in the ground. It is safe to say that the weather took a far greater toll on life then than it does now.

But, over the past 250 years, easy access to energy has undeniably, unmistakably, and unquestionably, changed all that. It has immeasurably improved the quality of our life. How this is lost on the Times editor sipping Starbuck’s coffee, writing on a computer connected to the internet from an air-conditioned office in a high-rise in New York City is inconceivable.

Does the Times really want us to give back all we have gained during the past 250 years to save a few degrees on the hottest days of the summer?

It is time for people to get real and quit global whining. Yes, human activity is effecting to some degree our daily weather and climate. How much is impossible to know, but rest assured that summers will be hot and winters and will be cold, and floods and droughts and windstorms and snowstorms, etc. will occur with or without our use of fossil fuels. However, our life is far more than daily weather and climate, and much of it has been made possible by fossil fuels and the energy that they provide.

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