Talking about the weather may be boring and unfulfilling
, but this month, Mother Nature has given us no other choice. The recent spate of heat and humidity -- prompted in part by flooding
this spring -- broke temperature records
in all 50 states, and July could be
one of the five hottest months in this country’s recorded history.* Air conditioning units the nation over have been working in overdrive, providing comfort to the masses and in extreme cases
, saving lives.
Few inventions altered post-war life more profoundly
than Willis Carrier’s breezy contraption. Initially designed to prevent magazine pages in a printing plant from wrinkling in the heat, Rebecca Rosen correctly notes
that the air conditioner’s ability to outwit the weather “reshaped our infrastructure, our entertainment, and our habits.” Without A/C, the popular conception of the “American Dream” would not include a suburban house bordered by a picket fence. You wouldn’t be reading this blog, which is dependent on heat-sensitive computer networks. And society generally would be less productive and more miserable.
That comfort, unfortunately, comes with a weighty cost. In 2006, 8 percent of the world’s total electricity supply
went towards powering American air conditioners. We’re addicted to these energy drains. And while improvements in technology have increased the efficiency of central air, reducing demand is tricky. The hotter it gets, the more likely a household is to crank up its dial, which requires the burning of more hydrocarbons, which heats the world further. It’s a classic positive feedback loop
Now that Asian consumers have disposable income to spend on home appliances, that loop will certainly widen further. The Prospect
offered some context in a 2006 piece
on home cooling history:And what of the emerging economies in the east—particularly the “surging middle classes” of Asia and the far east, whose potential numbers dwarf the air-conditioner users of the US? In China, the pattern set in 1950s America is already repeating itself. Exactly the same social issues of status, worker productivity and domestic comfort apply. The Chinese have worked hard for the trappings of western affluence. Just as in the US half a century ago, the environment counts for little in the face of such aspiration. There are already more than 100m residential air-conditioners in China, triple the number of five years ago. Sales are slower this year than last, but are still expected to reach a staggering 27m units. According to figures published in the People’s Daily, air-conditioning already accounts for 15 per cent of national power consumption annually. In summer, that figure jumps to as much as 40 per cent.
A/C units are actually more popular than the Prospect
predicted; the China Electronic Chamber of Commerce (CECC) reported that 35 million units
were sold in the People’s Republic last year alone, and the machines now consume 100 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually.** It’s true that Chinese families keep temperatures warmer
than their American counterparts and the Communist government is taking steps to extract
dirty chlorofluorocarbons from refrigerant coolants and ban the sale
of energy-wasting air conditioners. Yet the potential savings of those reforms (the latter one is only expected to conserve 3.3 billion kilowatt hours each year) are dwarfed by the country’s expanding energy needs.
Unless scientists make some major technological breakthrough in the next decade, entrepreneurial developers would be wise to start building dogtrot houses
across the Chinese countryside. They're practical and charming!
*The hottest was July 1936
, for those keeping track. The mercury at Midway Airport hit 100 degrees on 12 consecutive days!
**A typical 500 megawatt coal power plant produces
3.5 billion kWh per year.
Feel like ruining your day? Take a glance at this horrifying report
published by Human Rights Watch detailing widespread lead poisoning in China. While the pollutant is tightly regulated in most developed countries, investigators with the human rights group claim that hundreds of thousands of villagers and children in at least nine of China’s 31 provinces now suffer
from toxic levels of lead exposure, largely caused by run-off from battery factories and metal smelters. And local officials in the Chinese government, keen on “optimizing economic development” (as their Five-year Plan for Environmental Protection requires), have essentially choked off access to tests and treatment for kids at risk, bringing back frightening memories
of its lackluster response to the 2003 SARS epidemic.
When lead enters the bloodstream, even in tiny amounts, it can cause serious damage, particularly among kids whose bodies absorb the substance quickly and whose nervous systems are still developing. “A gradual build-up of lead in the bloodstream,” the Guardian notes
, “can … lead to anaemia, muscle weakness, arrested development, attention disorder and brain damage.” The latter risk, which is often irreversible, is most unnerving. A 2003 article
in The New England Journal of Medicine
convincingly linked elevated lead levels to reduced IQ. And Jonah Lehrer penned a great post
last month explaining lead’s effect on the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which controls impulses and “executive function
.” Here’s the conclusion:The tragedy of lead exposure is that it undermines one of the most essential mental skills we can give our kids, which is the ability to control what they’re thinking about. While the unconscious will always be full of impulses we can’t prevent, and the world will always be full of dangerous temptations, we don’t have to give in. We can choose to direct the spotlight of attention elsewhere, so that instead of thinking about the marshmallow we’re thinking about Sesame Street, or instead of thinking about our anger we’re counting to ten. And so there is no fight. We walk away.
If the Chinese don’t take care of this problem immediately, it’s entirely conceivable that violent crime
will rise dramatically over the next several decades. That trend would pose a greater threat to the country’s international image than slightly diminished economic growth.
Sorry for the radio silence these past few days, everyone. I have no excuses, other than a vacation hangover and an uptick in my NBA reading diet. So let’s get back to it.
Australian researchers made a heartening discovery
this week: the “hole” in the ozone layer over the South Pole is beginning to heal. The observation required environmental scientists to isolate dramatic annual fluctuations in ozone levels, a tricky task because of a weather pattern known as dynamical forcing that I won’t even pretend to understand. But the basic conclusion, neatly summarized
by the good folks at Nature
, is that the average springtime Antarctic ozone levels have already recovered by 15 percent since the late 1990s. And the monumental Montreal Protocol
treaty, which mandated a 50 percent reduction in the use of ozone depleting substances, seems to be the primary cause. (Environmental regulation skeptics, take note
Without a strong stratospheric ozone to absorb the Sun’s potent ultraviolet light, life on Earth would not exist. But not all O3 is created equal. Closer to the ground, low-level ozone known as tropospheric ozone -- formed when air laced with exhaust or industrial emissions interacts with sunlight -- actually serves as a pollutant, and can trigger or intensify
serious respiratory problems. (It’s the main ingredient of urban smog, for example.)
Luckily for our lungs, humans have a natural defender in the fight against ground-level ozone. According to a new paper
in the journal Environmental Science & Technology
, chemist Charles Weschler has determined that oil found on flakes of human skin quite effectively break apart the toxin: In the dust, the team found significant amounts of squalene and cholesterol. Weschler was not surprised, since humans shed skin rapidly: People shed their outer skin layer every two to four weeks. Given the amounts of the compounds, Weschler estimates that dust could be responsible for 2 to 15 percent of indoor ozone removal, depending on the amount of squalene in the dust.
"Basically, human beings are large ozone sinks,” Weschler wrote
in a subsequent email to LiveScience. “We have only found this out within the last five years!" Next time you’re at The Body Shop, in other words, pass on the loofah. It might help save your life.
Modern man’s voracious appetite
for seafood is endangering one of the Amazon’s most majestic marine mammals, and with it some delightfully bizarre folk tales.
The pink river dolphin
, or Boto, is a staple of South American life. Found in shallow, slow-moving waters, the good-natured creatures can reach 200 pounds in size, which make them an attractive target for fisherman looking to secure heaps of catfish bait. Although slaughtering the rosy beasts is illegal and carries an 18-month prison sentence in Brazil, enforcement is basically impossible, as several environmentalists
have warned over the past year. The dolphins are often harpooned at night, and only five environmental agents have been hired to patrol the massive jungle region (twice the size of Texas) they call home. For the anglers, the price is worth any potential risk; two dead dolphins can generate about $2,400 in catfish sales in just one day. Of the 30,000 river dolphins remaining, which are already threatened by rising boat traffic and mercury pollution, experts predict that 1,500 are killed annually.
Some native Amazonians can’t wait for the Boto to go the way of the Dodo. For generations, the species has held a mythical role in the region as a shape-shifting, and often dangerous, Encantado
:The encantado -- Portuguese for “enchanted ones” -- are river-dwelling spirits who can take either human form or the form of a boto, the bizarre long-beaked freshwater dolphins of the Amazon. In human form they are pale-skinned and graceful, dressed usually in bright clothes in an old-fashioned style. Their transformation is never fully complete, however: an encantado will always have a bald spot on the top of its head where its dolphin blowhole remains. For this reason, the encantado always keeps his head covered, usually with a broad-brimmed straw hat. The encantado is better at assuming its dolphin form, though strange boto with flippers ending in human hands have been reported.The encantado are curious about human society, and they are particularly fond of festivals and parties where they can enjoy music and dancing. It is not unheard-of for an enchanted one to dwell on land long-term, making a living as a musician. This fascination with people shows its dark side when a lovestruck encantado abducts a human girl back to its home in the underwater city called the Encante. Most of these girls never return from this mystic place, and those that somehow escape their abductors are never quite right in the head. Many return pregnant; this happens often enough that it’s common in some areas for any child whose father is unknown to be called a “child of the boto.”
The Yangtze River Dolphin, the Boto’s Chinese cousin, was declared functionally extinct
in 2007, a victim of overfishing in Asia. The extermination of these seafarers may ease concerns of human fathers, but it certainly does not bode well for the future of freshwater ecosystems.
Within the past seven days, four of the five light bulbs in the track lighting unit above our sink burned out. Their collective, almost choreographed demise was funny, and genuinely surprising. Nowadays, given the ubiquity of the compact fluorescent light bulb
(CFL), it seems like lamps can operate without interruption until hell freezes over.
I assumed that little environmental wonder was a recent invention, but it were initially cooked up in 1976 by Ed Hammer, then an engineer at General Electric. On the heels of the 1973 energy crisis, the multinational conglomerate asked Hammer to develop a light bulb that could reduce power consumption for anxious homeowners and tenants. The task was tricky: Hammer wanted to use a fluorescent lamp -- it converts energy into useful light more efficiently than Alexander Graham Bell’s incandescent variety -- but the material was generally tubed-shaped. That meant it was incapable of replacing existing bulbs unless manufacturers bent the light up like a balloon animal, creating substantial reflection loss
and dooming the project altogether.
Hammer, as his name metaphorically suggests, would not be deterred. Through a series of tests, he came up with a way to curl up the tube
and distance its new spirals far enough apart to cut down deflections (three lumens per watt, for the nerds out there) while still maintaining a bulb-like design. The result was a shape so ingenious that it still dominates the market today. (For five months in 2008, Hammer recorded a series of podcasts, hilariously titled “Drop the Hammer
,” on the history of his engineering feat.)
GE, though, didn’t profit immediately from the innovation. The company, despite a massive portfolio
, wasn’t prepared to make the capital investment ($25 million) needed to build CFL production facilities, and the prototype was shelved
. It was only after the design was leaked and Chinese manufacturers started whipping up CFLs in the 1990s that Hammer’s employer got into the game.
More recently, Congressional Republicans have launched a curious, misguided cultural war
against a newish regulation that tightens efficiency standards for lighting. Brad Plumer ran through
the details of their disgust in November. Considering that each CFL reduces annual carbon dioxide emissions by about 170 pounds, it’s high time that somebody drops the hammer, so to speak, on those troglodytes.
Michelle Higgins, the New York Times’
“Practical Traveler,” recommended
last month that adventurous globe-trotters in search of “emerging destinations” should drop by Mongolia
. It’s a “land of undeveloped beauty,” she wrote, and the capital city of Ulan Bator is “a good base for those wishing to explore the country’s grasslands, national parks, and Gobi Desert.” While I’m sure that’s all true, Higgins should have warned readers not to visit during the winter.
The landlocked nation, squished between the behemoths of Russia and China, is not a pleasant place to live from December through March, where average highs dip below
11 degrees Fahrenheit. A dzud
, or brutal winter, can wreak havoc on the nation’s economy, which is dependent
on the survival and breeding of livestock. And when the thermometer’s mercury plummets, a majority of folks in Ulan Bator (population 1 million) keep their families warm by lighting up one of the dirtiest heating tools imaginable: coal-burning stoves.
Each winter, residents consumer more than 6 million tons
of black rock, sending plumes of smut into the air. Since the city is surrounded by mountains, the smoke doesn’t disperse quickly; public health experts claim that Ulan Bator generates some of the worst urban pollution in the world, assaulting
residents’ respiratory systems with dangerous particulate matter: Maternity hospitals across Mongolia’s smoggy capital have experienced a spike in birth defects and unhealthy newborns in recent years. “I suspect air pollution plays a major role,” said Lodon, who has seen a sharp increase in cleft palates, weak bones and underdeveloped vital organs in her 10 years at the hospital. One researcher estimated that congenital birth defects have increased up to 30 percent in the last decade due to Ulaanbaatar’s dirty air. Of children born with heart defects, a government study found 56 percent died within their first year. [...]Among adults nationwide, respiratory disease is among the leading five causes of death, according to the Public Health Institute. The government agency has recorded a 45 percent uptick in the rate of respiratory diseases over the past five years.
President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj and the World Bank have been working together
to reduce wintertime emissions, though progress has been slow and coordination between government agencies haphazard. The nation is resource-rich
and its economy is expected to expand quickly this decade. As government resources tick up, Elbegdorj would be wise to plow cash into programs that subsidize cleaner stoves and fuel, as well as the construction of energy-efficient apartments. Getting rid of that dioxide would make the country a safer place to live ... and travel.