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Hot time in the city


Summer features its best impression of Hades as we enter August. You feel like you’re awakening from a bad, slow-moving dream, one in which the cat has settled on your face, and you can’t wake up enough to move it, but neither can you breathe. That’s the way midsummer makes me feel.

Denver’s weather is temperate, with few 100-degree days, unlike Tucson or even Boise. Nor is it accompanied by the humidity that makes Chicago or Atlanta oppressive. But in those years when the monsoon arrives late, and the baked-potato heat lingers far into the nights, you find yourself groggy, as if fighting a flu, occasionally turning surly. You’re short on ambition, but feel too good to throw in the towel. With due respect to Robert Frost, there’s no desire in this fire.

Everyone has their limits. “Very hot and dry again ... uggh,” wrote one correspondent from Silverton, located at 9,300 feet in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. He added: “Summer is for enduring.”

My endurance ends at 84 degrees. With that, my office air conditioner goes on. Others tolerate far more. An acquaintance who lives and works in an apartment in central Denver said at 5 p.m. that it was 88 degrees, with indoor temperatures likely to rise further yet. He has no air conditioner. They’re expensive to operate, he said, and “not good for the environment.”

The extent to which we insulate ourselves from the natural environment is remarkable. Even here during summer in the city, your back feeling dirty and gritty, it’s useful to carry a jacket when visiting stores and restaurants. With a flick of the air-conditioner dial, it’s winter again. Nor is it just in hot cities. Air conditioning, a luxury 50 years ago, today has become standard even in mountain resorts such as Sun Valley, Telluride and Vail, where summer -- at least before the climate shift began -- lasted barely long enough to grow potatoes.

Winter brings the opposite. Outside it can be freezing, but store doors remain wide open. For those who can’t read signs, that means “open.”

Is this not a truly remarkable time in human existence? We feel that our energy resources are so unlimited that we can turn summer into winter, and vice versa. Some call it the festival of fossil fuels. Others say that it’s like having 150 slaves, but analysts say the gluttony cannot be sustained.

Supplies of natural gas have peaked, and prices are headed inexorably upward. Summer’s transformation is different. The icy cold of the pancake house down the street comes from electricity, which is produced mostly by burning giant mounds of coal. We’ll not run out of coal soon, especially here in the carboniferous West. Just the same, we do have problems, of course, among them the greenhouse gases coal produces.

Nineteen years ago, Jim Hansen, a scientist from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, boldly told Congress that those greenhouse gases were fingerprints soon to show up on our climate. It seems time has proven him correct. There is little quibbling left about the gravity of evidence. Now, he says, we have until about 2015 to turn the corner or risk unknown consequences. Carbon is rapidly accumulating in the atmosphere. What is sobering is the speed of it all. Most of the oil, gas and coal ever consumed by us earthlings has been consumed during the last 55 years.

Some scientists say the challenge is one of engineering: using our energy more efficiently, adopting non-carbon and renewable energies, and devising strategies to store the unwanted carbon emissions in underground caverns. Then there are the question marks such as hydrogen and, in its own way, nuclear. What we need, they say, is a big program – something along the lines of the Apollo project, which put the first man on the moon.

Our species is nothing if not inventive, as witnessed by our ability to use a black rock to make popsicles. Maybe we can invent our way out of this pickle of planetary pollution. Then again, maybe we’re already just too clever by half with these absurd artifices of winter-in-summer and summer-in-winter.

Here in August, summer heat returns again by day, but it does not linger. At night the crickets make their pulsing music, and the tasseled ears of corn grow large. Life has become sweet and pleasant once again. Summer has been endured once more.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in the Denver area.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].