Thursday, July 15, 2010

My own personal global warming lesson

Living here in the Bay Area, talking about the weather is almost as dumb as talking about putting air in your tires. It’s an OK way to start a conversation with a total stranger when you actually want zero content, but otherwise why would you waste your time?

I just got back from a month in Berlin. Much of my time there was spent talking about and trying to escape from the weather. Day after day after day of temperatures in the high 90s at a time when I was especially keen on getting out and about and doing things. Maybe that's why I need to get this off my chest, this feeling I’ve been chosen by the gods to take on the topic of global warming.

I had two problems in Berlin. One, because I was walking a lot more than usual, my feet failed me. The other was that it was simply too damned hot to do anything that required being outside. Like going from A to B, for example. One day, when I was in the mood to just wander, I got on a bus that was so hot I had to get off again. Ever done that? Made getting off the bus a higher priority than getting to your destination?

I lived in Saudi Arabia for a year, and experienced temperatures up to 55 degrees centigrade, or 125 Fahrenheit. I like to tell about the time I got into a swimming pool and had to get out again because I was feeling faint. Turns out the water felt cool only because the air temperature was more than ten degrees hotter. I was actually swimming in water over 100 degrees. I concluded that Saudi Arabia was not a place to live and celebrated the fact that I have always lived either with four seasons, as in New England, Japan or Germany, or in California, a place known for its lack of extremes in temperatures.

Struggling with the weather in Berlin was a new event, and I have come to take it personally. I can’t shake having to get off that bus in Berlin because they don’t have air conditioning. I lived through three winters there, where it seemed as if the sun went down mid-afternoon and didn’t rise again till mid-morning. And not only was it dark; it was bitter cold. All my life I have thought that Berlin was hell in the winter and paradise in the summer. This summer turned all that on end. Slipping and falling on ice is a familiar Berlin winter hazard, but this year there was a summer hazard as well. At one outdoor theater presentation, a member of the audience collapsed and stopped the show, and part of the response was to give everybody in the audience ice cubes to hold and to suck on. Another time I went into a Starbuck’s, ordered a frozen drink and thought I was having a stroke from the reaction – you know those headaches you can give yourself when cold goes into your skull like a knife?

I just read a CNN news article about 1000 Muscovites drowning while trying to get away from the heat, an article I was sharply drawn to because I had just been hit over the head with the same problem in another place you don’t normally associate with heat.

Heatstroke, sunburn, asphalt in the streets melting – all unusual problems for northern countries. I was house sitting for friends, and the normally routine job of watering the plants became a major effort. It was as if the plants were drying up before your eyes.

I started poking around for evidence that the world was beginning to take notice of this personal message to me from the gods, and I came across New York Times writer Andrew Revkin. Maybe you already know this guy. He’s been writing on one global warming issue after another. Check him out, if you’re interested.

One of the delights of Berlin in the summer is that it has these ginormously large sidewalks and all the restaurants simply move out onto them, and the extended hours of sunlight are a signal to have your morning croissants in the sunshine, your afternoon coffee in the sunshine, a couple glasses of wine in the early evening, and laze around till ten or so over dinner – in one of thousands and thousands of sidewalk restaurants. They are shaded in case the sun does get too hot.

But this summer we were very often choosing a table inside because even the shade outside was too uncomfortable. Worse, here I was in Germany and I was ordering water over beer!

I can’t believe the debates go on about whether there is global warming, and if so whether it is caused by human action. Revkin has documented some of these debates.

In Saudi Arabia I had a friend who may have been the only person in the country with winter gloves. He kept them in his car, so that when he got in and found the steering wheel too hot to handle, he at least had a means of driving to a cooler place. Nobody had leather seats, obviously. I thought of those gloves a number of times this summer. Can’t believe it seemed like a good idea in a city at the same latitude as the southern part of Hudson Bay.

I’m home in California now and I’m grooving on the cool. Back to that part of California about which people love to cite that quotation which Mark Twain actually never said, but should have: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

It could well be my run-in with summer in Berlin was not about global warming at all, but about being conditioned by a place which doesn’t follow the normal weather rules.

But I prefer to think this was the summer I got religion. Or at least one message from the gods on the topic of global warming.

So don’t ask me about the weather for a while, even as a topic starter. At least until I get out from under the idea I’m the ancient mariner with an albatross around my neck.

Stay cool.

1 comment:

William Lang said...

The only reason there is any doubt whatsoever about global warming is the following: At a minimum, there is US$100 trillion worth of recoverable petroleum left in the Earth.

But of course, the climate has changed. I happened across one modest example myself: the local weather bureau last October ran a table showing high temperatures on Halloween in Louisville, Kentucky, since about 1900. I did a little statistical analysis. It turns out the average high temperature on that date was 60.5°F over the first 30 years of the data set, beginning in 1873, but for the three decades ending last year, it was 68.6°F. Temperatures have risen by about 0.7 of a degree per decade over the last century.