Friday, July 19, 2013

Local Warming, and How to Control the Urge to Laugh at Al Gore

(This is an updated version of a book reaction piece I posted on Associated Content in the winter of 2010-2011. AC liked articles with local interest, so my reaction to Hot, Flat, and Crowded focussed on Bethesda, Maryland, where the book was presumably written.)

In the 1970s, Republican Dixy Lee Ray wrote an allegedly scientific book that supposedly proved that we didn't need an environmental movement. Several of her facts have since been disproved. Still, older Republicans like Rush Limbaugh refuse to admit that polluting the environment is a crime that has human victims...though younger conservatives, including Michael Savage and Rand Paul as well as me, are advocating that large-scale pollution be prosecuted as the violent crime it is.

More recently, Democrat Al Gore lent his celebrity status to allegedly scientific "proof" that we're bound for a whole planetary apocalypse of environmental disasters caused by "global warming." Any casual agreement that it's been more than hot enough for anybody, during several recent summers, has triggered rants about the hypothetical (and sometimes mutually exclusive) horrors "global warming" was expected to produce. Some of the facts on which global warming theory relied have been disproved, and on the day when the original version of this document was published a Yahoo search of "global warming" material online uncovered three and a half million web pages gloating over the refutation of the global warming hoax.

Sites like www.junkscience.com, http://www.drroyspencer.com/, and http://www.globalwarminghoax.com/ continue to present evidence that global warming theory is not fully supported by the facts. Does it need to be? Does the absence of missing links to support the theory that any species ever "evolved" into a really different species make the fact of microevolution less valid, or less useful to farmers and gardeners? Pollution may or may not be causing long-term global warming. Pollution is indisputably causing local warming and on a day like this one, July 19, 2013, everyone in my part of the world is feeling it...ouch!

The last full-length book I read about global warming was Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded. (Click here to visit the author and/or buy the book.) It was written before some of its supporting research had been discredited.

But I can see where Friedman got his ideas. He wrote from Bethesda, Maryland. Always considered a nice neighborhood even before it became a wealthy one, Bethesda is too close to Washington to be the home town of many people. For most of its residents, whether diplomats or Upwardly Mobile Professionals, living in Bethesda is an achievement. I'm duly impressed.

I'm also aware that the phenomenon of local warming was sudden and drastic for Bethesda. Since the early 1980s, when "developers" tore up all those gracious lawns, porticoed houses, and massive oak trees, close to the shopping district, and put in high-rise buildings with dozens of air conditioners churning hot air out of each building all summer long, Bethesda's climate has changed drastically. Whatever it was in terms of nineteenth-century politics, Maryland is a Southern State in terms of climate. Adding local warming factors by turning acres of green space into a heat-generating machine is not a change most people would have imagined any part of Maryland would ever want or need.

It's reasonable that people who used to enjoy summers in Bethesda with unscreened windows, fans, lots of iced tea, and frequent trips to the beach, now feel uncomfortable enough there to become believers in global warming. This is something even residents of Hyattsville understand. Early twentieth century novelist James M. Cain may have been the first to document that Hyattsville is normally warmer than most of Virginia, but Cain could not have anticipated that sweet watermelons, cacti, and palm trees would be among the plants people could raise in back yards in Hyattsville...as became the case in the 1990s.

Bethesda's transition from comfortably warm to miserably hot is an example of local warming, and of what's headed toward most of us if we listen to talk about "growth and progress." Personally, when I hear talk about "growth and progress" for communities that are about the size they need to be, I think of malignant tumors. In 1980 Bethesda was a nice, comfortable size. Now it is suffering the agony of malignant, uncontrolled, destructive growth. And if Maryland isn't careful, Bethesda's growth could metastasize.

Local warming is an indisputable fact to which many of us can relate in a close and personal way. Local warming means your cherry trees die, but watermelon seeds that have been dumped in the yard sprout and grow. And your roof starts to leak because your oldfashioned asphalt shingles melt in the heat. And nobody wants to sit on the porch any more.

Local warming can be reversed. Cities and neighborhoods can change zoning laws to reduce population density, requiring a reasonable amount of green space between houses and outlawing future "towering infernos." Individuals can unplug machines, walk instead of driving, and move their beds and desks into the basement to take advantage of the natural insulating and cooling down there. Everyone may not be able to telecommute and home-school, but communities can encourage everyone who can do these things to do them, reducing traffic and greenhouse gases.

How effective are these methods of preventing local warming? Bethesdans can make local phone calls to find out. If you want to be convinced, make it a summer project to compare temperatures, on the same days and at the same times, in downtown D.C., in Takoma Park, in Bethesda, and in Olney. (If you're on another side of town, you could do this experiment with local phone connections in downtown D.C., in downtown Hyattsville, in Laurel, and in Columbia; or D.C., Arlington, Fairfax, and Manassas.) You're comparing neighborhoods that are within an hour's drive, and you will get temperature readings that suggest different climate zones.

Although Friedman seems more interested in promoting bigger government than in the ideas you can use, Hot, Flat, and Crowded is packed with ideas you can use to change the fact of local warming. Some of these ideas may not sell overnight, but they should sell easily enough. Nobody wants to replace all the big, expensive appliances in the house at once. Sooner or later all the appliances will have to be replaced. When we buy new refrigerators, does anybody not want to look for models that are more efficient than the ones we have now?

Friedman complains that what stands between us and the Green future is the need to "find a source of cheap electrons." He doesn't have much to report on my favorite Green idea: the pedal generator. Devices that trap the energy generated by pedalling a bicycle and use that energy to boost the bicycle up hills have been around for at least fifty years. They've not been perfected and mass-marketed because Americans have attached ourselves to the idea that, when people are serious about getting somewhere, they drive cars.

Bethesda is one of the few places where I've seen expensive gym equipment actually in use. Right in the shopping district, whole classes of people in search of a healthy alternative to caffeine can be seen pumping and pedalling, early in the morning. Granted, harnessing that energy wouldn't power all the computers and air conditioners in Bethesda, but it would be a step in the right direction. Some Bethesdans prefer to do their morning workouts at home, and with a little help from science and technology, this could also become a source of cheap electrons...that would make it much easier to cope with the inadequacies of Pepco.

When people like Thomas Friedman or Al Gore prefer, instead, to dream about "smart meters" to tell people whether they were using electricity that comes from a hydroelectric plant or a coal-burning plant, laughter is an appropriate reaction. How much faith do you have in the people who "estimate" your energy consumption when an actual reading is not available? Don't we all know how, during the month when our power lines were buried in snow for a week, the electric company needed the money so they "estimated" that we somehow managed to consume more kilowatts than we consumed in the previous and following months together? Of course, since actual readings were available, these "estimates" were corrected with refunds a few months later. Along with the other possibilities they offer to large-scale evildoers, "smart meters" could make it harder for legislators to order the utility companies to issue those refunds.

Friedman worries that, if Green changes don't hurt us private individuals, "it's not a revolution, it's a party." Need he be reminded that this country began with a revolution in which relatively few private individuals were hurt...and the revolution began with a party? In a True Green revolution, the only casualties will be bank accounts, but we might as well enjoy the party anyway.