California's state-wide heat wave, now going for 12 days, has so far claimed an estimated 90 lives (more than 140 as of 7/30/06). New all-time highs and night-time minimum temperatures have been set across the state. The massive system has become a weather phenomenon never before witnessed by state officials, drawing humidity from monsoonal Southwest moisture and splayed out over thousands of square miles, billowing up to 30,000 feet in the atmosphere.
Besides the human deaths, the heat has had a significant effect on livestock and poultry, with milk production reduced by 15 percent, while killing 25,000 cattle and 700,000 fowl over the past two weeks. Crops are not ripening properly and are being burned on the vine and branch. California is the nation's leading dairy and fruit producing state. Stone fruit, tomatoes and grapes are thought to be most at risk--it is no exaggeration that California's agriculture industry feeds the nation during summer and fall months.
The state's power grid has used more power than ever before by a significant amount on multiple days of this 12-day run. Monday's all-time record was within a few percentage points of the state's total grid capacity. Blackouts did occur, some cutting air conditioning in regions with high temperatures approaching 120 degrees during the day and the mid 80s during the night. More than 800,000 lost power in Northern California, leaving homes and businesses without air conditioning in 110-115 degree conditions. If demand increased only slightly on Monday, large-scale blackouts would have occurred. These would have not only surpassed the Enron-induced rolling blackouts of 2000-2001, they would have resulted in hundreds if not thousands of more deaths.
Reading today's news of dozens of bodies being discovered is a harsh indicator that the health care system needs a way to better handle and prepare for such heat waves.
Let's suppose this unprecedented heat wave--at least during the last 150 years or so of record keeping--is the result of global climate change and that these events will become more frequent and more intense in the near future.
Besides reversing global climate change through carbon reduction, how can we best deal with what may be already set in motion?
- Greater energy efficiency has to be a given. Less energy consumption for buildings, for manufacturing, for cities. How do we do that? Weatherize homes and businesses, more than ever before. Put in florescent light bulbs, and design structures with extreme weather in mind. This will save residents and businesses money over the medium term while helping businesses make money as new energy efficiency products and services are developed by public-private partnerships.
- Use green building approaches such as dayligthing, which lights homes with no electric or energy use. Solar and wind energy can be produced by homes or utilities during peak demand periods to supplement gas, coal or nuclear power plant energy production. Super insulation and advanced design approaches utilizing passive cooling will also be critical.
- Plant trees and green rooftops. These actions are no longer the luxuries of schoolchildren or green zealots. Trees planted on the east and west exposures of buildings can lower temperatures up to 10 degrees indoors. Street trees can lower ambient temperatures for cities, while making pedestrian passage easier, requiring less heat-generating parking lots. Green rooftops can also significantly reduce indoor temperatures while potentially mitigating the urban heat island effect, as Chicago has tried to do with 2.5-million square feet of rooftop gardens.
- Increased water conservation must occur in regions where water is imported long distances. Importing water consumes tremendous amounts of energy because of the pumping required--it's the greatest single use of energy in California. More climate-appropriate landscaping is needed, water conservation and reuse (greywater) should be facilitated through building codes and permitting in any way possible.
Besides taking these potential amortized-cost (green building), low-cost (energy efficiency, trees) or no-cost measures (water conservation, daylighting), cities and regions need to start modeling such threats and benefits (if any) of global warming and other likely climate-change scenarios.
Yes, agriculture may move northward in the U.S. and Canada as average mean temperatures climb, but ag also needs to be adapted to suit conditions such as long-lasting 100-degree heat waves in regions that normally don't experience such temperatures. Citrus and pomegranates might still be okay for California, for instance. But other vulnerable crops may need to be grown further north, like in Oregon's Willamette Valley or British Columbia's Fraser River Valley.
Cities, metro areas and regions can run simulations assessing how climate can impact overall energy availability, consumption, and overall metabolism. With rising energy costs and threats to power grid dependability, this is a critical exercise in economic and disaster preparedness.
And if global warming or climate change is not occurring, a theory that becomes less feasible every year, this series of actions still makes more sense than ever because of rapidly escalating energy costs.