Energy & Environment

Record heat leads to more air conditioning, creating a depressing loop

The record summer heat scorching the U.S. and Europe is illustrating the drastic need for action on climate change, even as the high temperatures are likely to increase the production of energy and greenhouse gasses contributing to global warming.  

The heat is killing people, energy grids are getting overwhelmed, and more people in more places will be looking for air conditioning in the future, creating an insidious and depressing loop.   

“Most of the great bulk of our greenhouse gas emissions come from consuming energy, mostly to make electricity,” said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.  

The extreme heat, in turn, “greatly increases the need for air conditioners, which are a significant energy consumer,” he added.   

In the U.S., more than half of the states were under heat advisories as of Thursday morning, with highs hovering around 115 in Texas and Oklahoma. National Weather Service data indicates at least four states — Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas and Missouri — saw temperatures at least 10 degrees hotter than the historical average for this point in the year.   

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the British town of Coningsby in Lincolnshire recorded an all-time high of 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday, breaking a record set only hours before of 104.4 degrees in London. Communities in France, Spain and Portugal battled high temperatures and wildfires.   

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

At least 13 deaths have been recorded in Britain, where many live without air conditioning because temperatures so seldomly reach the 90s and triple digits, as of Wednesday.   

At least 500 people died in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and southern Canada last summer during a scorching heat wave in the Pacific Northwest. Such waves are expected to become more common because of climate change, and the lack of action to slow it.   

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

The unprecedented heat, she said, is “making it difficult to refill the natural gas storage facilities which is what they’re trying to do right now in order to prepare for winter, which is what they’re really worried about.”   

“The heatwaves that we’re having, that are becoming stronger and more frequent and are a sign of climate change… they’re something that science has told us was coming and they are no surprise,” Gross said.   

However, she added, the greater demand for electricity generation both increases emission from power generation and strains regional grids, particularly in Texas, where the statewide grid has already been unprepared for extreme winter weather.   

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

Gerrard suggested that while increased proliferation of air conditioning might be the only immediate relief from the heat, there are design lessons to be learned that could provide alternate options in future heatwaves.   

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

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

The heat also has international implications, coming as British, European and American leaders have all joined an embargo against Russian oil, which provided much of Europe’s fuel.   

“I think the current heat wave will boost rather than hinder European efforts to prepare for this winter. People see how exposed they are 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 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Energy Security and Climate Change Program, told The Hill in an email.  

“The EU’s proposed 15 percent gas cut will be hard to swallow, but it shows that policymakers are having frank discussions about conservation and energy efficiency.”   

The extreme temperatures come during a moment of intense pressure for climate policymaking in the U.S.

Just last week, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) said he would not back climate spending in a reconciliation bill after weeks of negotiations, which were themselves a last-ditch effort to save the Build Back Better framework Manchin torpedoed in 2021. President Biden on Wednesday called climate change an “emergency” but did not declare a national emergency after initial reports that he would.    

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

Tags Climate change Great Britain Heat wave Oklahoma Texas

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