Climate change is too important to leave to the experts. For years now, partisans on both sides of the climate issue have flung graphs, glaciers and hockey sticks at each other, generating as much heat as greenhouse gases, but little consensus.
For most Americans, climate change arrived on Thursday, June 23, 1988. This was the day James E. Hansen, a youthful and idealistic NASA scientist, appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by population control enthusiast Senator Tim Wirth of Colorado. Hansen had an alarming story to tell: the global warming of the Earth’s atmosphere had begun, caused by human-made carbon dioxide. According to Hansen, the long-range forecast called for worse droughts and forest fires along with heavier rains and floods than ever before.
The Senators gathered in Dirksen 366 were inclined to believe him. The temperature in the Capitol that day rose to 98°, and the hearing room itself was a steaming cauldron. During his conclusion, Hansen ceremoniously mopped his brow, the senators soaked in their shirtsleeves, and the precursor to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created.
The sauna-like hearing room was itself the result of man-made climate change—and the man who made it was Senator Wirth. To help bolster Hansen’s testimony, the Senator’s staff scheduled the hearing on what local weather statistics had indicated to be the hottest day of the year. Prior to the meeting, he ordered his staff to enter the room the night before and open its three large windows in order to place so much stress on the building’s air conditioning system that it shut down. While Hansen’s assertions might later be contested, the climate that day agreed perfectly with him.
Senator Wirth’s mischief reflects a larger social trend that I call “manmade personal climate change”, or “MPCC”. This kind of climate change requires no experts. The phenomenon is so apparent, fundamental and omnipresent, only a non-expert could see it. As Goethe observed, “The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.”
Consider your own “personal climate” and the dramatic changes your private environment has undergone over the past several decades. Since the 1940s, two key factors relating to our environment have accounted for “MPCC”: clothing and central air conditioning.
The tee-shirt’s ubiquity dates from World War II. American youth has taken to wearing tee-shirts as part of their informal uniform. Originally an undergarment to keep a person warm, the tee-shirt became an outer garment that allowed sailors and soldiers in the tropics to keep cool. The skimpy garment, now worn year-round, has a triple effect—making you feel colder in air-conditioned buildings, hotter once outdoors and unconsciously aware of the contrast between indoors and out.
The second factor is chilled indoor air. Like tee-shirts, air conditioning became widespread following World War II. One first encountered air conditioning in movie theaters and bars, especially in the South and Southwest, regions of tremendous post World War II population growth. Soon “AC” was everywhere we were: houses, work, cars, even gigantic factories where large windows were once deemed adequate to handle the summer heat.
Today Americans increasingly reside in treeless suburbs ever more prevalent in the sunbelt. For example, Arizonians live half the year in air-conditioned lockdown—waking in 70°, driving in the 70° climate of their car, working in their 70° office and retracing the journey at 5:00 P.M. If they go out, it isn’t outdoors, but to an air-conditioned restaurant or movie theater. The Arizona Diamondbacks play in Chase Field, a fully air-conditioned ballpark bathing over 48,000 people in a man-made cloud of artificially cooled vapor.
In the United States during summer, the climate—the real climate—might indeed seem anomalous. Nature itself feels artificially hot to one who is artificially cooled. Our response to the notion of man-made global warming is that we increasingly experience the outdoors as a warmer environment.
Over the last half-century we’ve developed a new, profound and subtle sensitivity to outdoor temperatures during the balmy seasons. This unconscious receptivity is complemented by the conscious psychic satisfaction from believing in man-made global warming.
I do not dispute climate change. The controversy is over the level of human influences. “Manmade Personal Climate Change” may add an overlooked dimension to the debate over man-made causes. It may nudge the public into contending more seriously with them—if only by a degree or two.
The above blog entry appeared in The Providence Journal op/ed section on Sunday, April 25, 2010