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A hot topic that can send a chill through you


The central air in my house is broken, and while waiting for it to fix itself - my usual approach to home repairs - I did what people did before they had a/c.

I went to the movies.

I went to see An Inconvenient Truth yesterday afternoon, and it gave me the chill I sought - beyond the usual delicious one that you get entering the dark womb of a movie theater on an infernally hot summer day.

It was so chilling I didn't even turn the air conditioner on in my car to drive back to the office. The movie's portrayal of weather gone amok - glaciers melting, rivers drying up, hurricanees whipping up to Katrina-level extremes - is as scary as anything Hollywood has come up with this summer.

Even if you haven't seen the movie, you probably know something about it - it's former Vice President Al Gore's cautionary slide show on global warming. As dreary as that sounds, it's the 12th-most-popular movie in the country - still well below blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean and Superman Returns, but a decent showing for a serious documentary released in the middle of the silly season.

So after a hot and largely sleepless night, a movie about global warming seemed, perversely enough, a good way to cool off. There's nothing like getting ammunition for what you've been complaining about for years - that every summer seems hotter than the one before - to lower your personal thermostat.

I'm baffled by how reliant I've become on air conditioning. I grew up in a house that didn't have central air, which was pretty typical in our middle-class neighborhood. I think we might have had one window unit, and maybe got others as the years went on, but mostly we had fans - and popsicles. My first car didn't even have air conditioning.

But now I would no more buy a house or car without it than one without a roof. I've become a total summer weather wimp. This weekend, I insisted on driving to a restaurant just three blocks away because at least my car, unlike my house, had a working air conditioner.

If you complain about the heat as much as I do, you've heard all the arguments against global warming: Weather is cyclical over the long term. The variance year to year is no more than a degree or two. It's not the planet, it's you; you're getting old or, worse, menopausal. You've been spoiled by air conditioning.

But, finally, global warming is getting its due - and it's not just the movie. Gregg Easterbrook, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, calls himself a skeptic turned convert on the subject and recently issued a paper titled "Case Closed: The Debate About Global Warming Is Over."

He - and the movie - say it's indisputable at this point that our fossil-fuel-burning lifestyle has created an artificial greenhouse effect in which carbon dioxide and other gases trap ever more solar heat in the atmosphere.

An Inconvenient Truth notes that the 10 hottest years in history have all been in the last 14 years. (Others go even further: Time magazine's cover story on global warming this March notes that 19 of the 20 hottest years on record have occurred since the 1980s.)

So here's the circular dilemma we've ended up in: Air conditioning uses electricity, which is generated, in part, by the burning of fossil fuels, which increases carbon dioxide levels, which increases global warming - which increases the reliance on air conditioning.

People who live in cities are in even more of a bind - we have to worry about "urban heat islands," the phenomenon by which cities can have temperatures as much as 10 degrees higher than in nearby rural areas, according to the EPA. It's the fewer trees, the taller buildings, the narrower streets and "waste heat," which is generated by cars, industry and - you guessed it - air conditioner exhaust.

So that's why I could barely get to sleep these past couple of nights. The ceiling and portable fans were blowing great gusts of wind through my bedroom, but it was really hot wind, made even hotter by the exhaust from everyone else's air conditioners, which I could hear whirring through my open windows.

I suppose I could have romanticized it and imagined I was in Provence, during the mistral. I also could have taken comfort in the fact that, without air conditioning, I was doing my part to reduce greenhouse gases, so the world, if not my personal slice of it, was a bit cooler for it.

But then, altruism tends to make you feel warmer inside - not the effect I was seeking.

Which is why even as you read this, I'll be at home, waiting for the air conditioning repair guy to come. Soon, I hope to be back in the carbon dioxide-emitting business.

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