Record heat leads to more air conditioning and creates a depressing loop

Record heat leads to more air conditioning and creates a depressing loop

Record summer heat scorching the US and Europe highlights the need for urgent action to address climate change, even as high temperatures are likely to increase production of energy and greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming.

Heat is killing people, energy grids will be overwhelmed, and more people in more places will seek air conditioning in the future, creating an insidious and depressing loop.

“Most of our greenhouse gas emissions come from energy use, primarily for electricity generation,” said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

The extreme heat, in turn, “substantially increases the need for air conditioning, which is a significant energy consumer,” he added.

In the US, more than half of the states were under heat warnings as of Thursday morning, with highs in Texas and Oklahoma hovering around 115. Data from the National Weather Service shows that in at least four states — Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas and Missouri — temperatures were at least 10 degrees hotter than the historical average for that time of year.

Across the Atlantic, the British town of Coningsby in Lincolnshire recorded an all-time high of 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday, beating a record set just hours earlier by 104.4 degrees in London. Communities in France, Spain and Portugal struggled with high temperatures and wildfires.

On both sides of the ocean, high temperatures are bringing death and destruction.

At least 13 deaths have been recorded in Britain, where many are living without air conditioning because temperatures so rarely reach the 90s and triple digits from Wednesday.

At least 500 people died in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and southern Canada during a searing Pacific Northwest heatwave last summer. Such waves are expected to become more frequent due to climate change and the lack of measures to slow it down.

Extreme heat means increased demand for power generation, which is “problematic” as demand for power generation gas in particular in Europe skyrockets in the summer, said Samantha Gross, director of the Brookings Institution’s Energy Security and Climate Protection Initiative.

The unprecedented heat, she said, “is making it harder to replenish natural gas storage, which they’re trying to do right now to prepare for winter, which is something they’re really concerned about.”

“The heat waves that we’re having that are getting stronger and more frequent and are a sign of climate change… they’re something that science told us was coming, and they’re not a surprise,” Gross said.

However, she added that greater demand for power generation is both increasing emissions from power generation and straining regional grids, particularly in Texas, where the statewide grid was already unprepared for extreme winter weather.

“It’s a bit of an unfortunate feedback loop that we need more power when it’s hotter,” she said. “Ideally, people will look at that and say, oh, that’s what climate scientists expected.”

Gerrard suggested that while the proliferation of air conditioning may be the only immediate relief from the heat, there are design lessons that could provide alternative options for future heatwaves.

“In the long term, there are building design methods that are better for airflow and breezes,” he said. For example, he said: “A lot of green is very important. The urban heat island effect is a major phenomenon that is significantly reduced by planting large numbers of trees.”

Urban heat islands are a term for cities with dense concentrations of particularly heat-absorbing infrastructure, such as sidewalks and buildings, in place of natural land cover. The phenomenon can lead to higher temperatures as well as increased energy costs and air pollution levels.

The heat is also having international repercussions as British, European and American leaders have joined an embargo on Russian oil, which provided much of Europe’s fuel.

“I think the current heatwave will boost rather than hamper European efforts to prepare for this winter. People see themselves exposed to extreme temperatures. I don’t think they want to leave their heating and cooling at the mercy of Russian gas imports,” Ben Cahill, a senior fellow in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Energy Security and Climate Change program, said in an email to The Hill.

“The EU’s proposed 15 percent reduction in gas consumption will be difficult to swallow, but it shows that policymakers are openly discussing energy conservation and energy efficiency.”

The extreme temperatures come during a moment of intense pressure on US climate policy

Just last week, Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.V.) said he would not support climate spending in a reconciliation bill after weeks of negotiations that were themselves a last-ditch effort to salvage the Build Back Better framework Manchin is torpedoing in 2021 would have. President Biden on Wednesday called climate change an “emergency,” but did not declare a national emergency after initial reports he would do so.

As Biden faces the likely loss of a Democratic majority in one or both houses of Congress, executive action will likely be his only recourse to climate this time next year — and that may not stand up to the most conservative Supreme Court in a generation.

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