Wednesday, August 20, 2003
France claims that the recent European heat wave (search) was responsible for the deaths of 3,000 of its countrymen. But for most of the summer, it has been much hotter in the American West, and no one can find even one body attributable to the heat.
The difference is air conditioning run by affordable energy (search), and the obvious fear is that if the next big blackout hits at midday during a major heat wave (when energy demand is greatest) and continues for days, a tremendous catastrophe will ensue.
For the record, the mean summer temperature in Paris is the same as in Detroit, Chicago and Denver, and when these American cities heat up to record levels (as long as the power stays on), there's no proportional number of excess deaths.
All of these cities share common physics: Their bricks, buildings and pavement retain the day's heat, making them nice little laboratories to study the relationship between warming and mortality. Washington, D.C., for example has a striking "urban effect" heating (no doubt enhanced by the waste heat from all those politicians exhaling).
The temperature around formerly rural Dulles Airport (search) remained constant for decades, but then began to rise about 20 years ago as the government and its service corporations grew along the Dulles Access Highway.
Rural mid-Atlantic temperatures, however, haven't budged for 100 years.
Environmentalists warn us that unless we stop global warming (search), urban death rates will skyrocket, as this will supply an additional increment of heat. The way to stop global warming, of course, is to restrict the use of fossil-fuel energy, which can only be accomplished by raising the price to a level at which people begin to self-ration their consumption.
My University of Virginia (search) colleague Robert Davis and I looked into the issue of heat and mortality in American cities and published our findings in several academic journals. Given all those bodies in France and the big blackout, perhaps it's a good time to get these out of the dusty library stacks and tell what we found.
People who study mortality and climate have known for years that most temperate-zone cities have had some "threshold" temperature at which daily mortality suddenly begins to skyrocket. People who study economics will argue that this is a market ripe for adaptation.
How have Americans adapted to our warming cities? They stopped dying. Even though the local temperature keeps going up and up, the threshold at which deaths skyrocket has become higher and higher, and now is beyond the highest temperatures.
In Philadelphia, a typical old urban core, deaths began to rise in the 1960s when the "effective temperature" (search) (a combination of heat and humidity) hit the mid-80s. By the 1970s, the threshold was in the low 90s. In the 1980s the temperature threshold was in the mid-90s, and by the 1990s there was no measured effective temperature at which mortality rises.
This behavior repeats at virtually every American city we studied, except in "new" cities of the Deep South, such as Houston, which never have shown any temperature at which mortality jumps.
Obviously the solution is air conditioning powered by affordable energy. And that's the difference between America and Europe.
European cities are virtually devoid of air conditioning in large part because the energy to run them is so expensive. And why is that? Pressured by vocal environmentalists, European governments have levied energy tax after energy tax, with the latest excuse being global warming.
The mathematics of this problem are terribly transparent. In order to meet their self-imposed targets from the Kyoto Protocol (search) on global warming, European nations already have taxed energy, but they have not done enough. Consequently, even more restrictions are being proposed, especially by the German government. Unaffordable air conditioning will become even more expensive, killing more and more Europeans the next time the temperature reaches what passes for a few degrees above what is normal in Dallas.
Europe has effectively imposed a continuous blackout on air conditioning, and now it is paying the price.
Some people will point to the hundreds of people who died in the infamous July 1995 Chicago heat wave and wonder how we could have ignored this obvious tragedy. We didn't.
Normally many more die on the poorer South Side of the city, but not in 1995. A power outage hit the affluent North Side early on and the air conditioning went out. As they say, Q.E.D.
And as for the heat-prostrated people of Europe, it's too bad that the Kyoto Protocol will do nothing measurable about the Earth's mean temperature for the forseeable future. But it will kill thousands and thousands more in France, Germany and England, where energy taxes are enormous, creating an invisible blackout of lifesaving air conditioning.
Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia.