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Cool as a Cucumber, But Do We Need to Be?

An environmental attorney, Philip Warburg served as president of the Conservation Law Foundation from 2003 to 2009. He is the author of Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability. Visit his website at www.philipwarburg.com 

0107 (1)Last week I participated in a lively workshop at Iowa State University, looking at ways to make our energy, transportation, and water infrastructure more resilient and sustainable.  Clean-energy options for generating electricity and fueling our cars, trucks, and buses were among the topics examined.  Mechanisms for integrating ever-greater amounts of solar and wind power into our electric grid were creatively explored.  Yet, on a hot midsummer day, we all sat in a conference hall so frigid that those smart enough to bring sweaters were soon wearing them.

I hadn't been so smart.  As I shivered through the workshop's morning sessions, I struggled to keep my mind from wandering to that longed-for sweater, still neatly folded in a suitcase back in my hotel room.  Finally I made a run for it.  (To be honest, I made a drive for it.)  Twenty minutes later, I was back at ISU's Memorial Union, finally able to focus on things weightier than my body's battle against the mechanical chill.

A few weeks earlier, on a trip to scout out solar installations in New Jersey, I checked in to New Brunswick's Hyatt Regency Hotel, now the proud operator of a 421-kilowatt photovoltaic power system that the hotel's management expects will spare us 10,000 tons of carbon emissions over the next 30 years.  As I rode the glass-enclosed elevator up to my room, I peered down admiringly at the 1800-plus panels elegantly arrayed across the garage's expansive roof.

There, too, arctic summer struck despite the searing outdoor heat.  The hotel's lobby was uncomfortably cold, and its super-sleek restaurant was bone-chilling -- surely no more than a few degrees above 60.  Fleeing to my room to grab a jacket, I couldn't help wondering how many thousands of tons of CO2 Hyatt could save simply by setting its A/C to a bearable 75 to 78 degrees.

In the Boston Globe this past Sunday, Leon Neyfakh argues for jettisoning what UC Berkeley architecture professor Gail Brager calls the "thermal monotony" of our air-conditioned lives.  It's well worth the read, if only to remind us how thermally resilient we all used to be.