“Heat Islands”

In a lame attempt to be contrarian, noted sprawl apologist Joel Kotkin writes in Sunday’s Seattle Times that dense city living causes global warming, because they generate “heat islands” which extend far beyond the city’s boundaries.

No, wait — he doesn’t actually argue that, but you have to read the piece twice to realize it. Instead, he uses several rhetorical sleights-of-hand, leading you from “warming” the temperature sense, to “warming” in the Al-Gore-global-climate-change sense, with no logical basis of support. Observe:

Recent studies out of Australia and Greece, as well as studies on U.S. cities, have also documented this difference in warming between highly concentrated central cities and their surrounding areas.

This is critical as we deal with what may well be a period of prolonged warming. Urban heat islands may not explain global warming, but they do bear profound environmental, social, economic and health consequences that reach beyond city boundaries. A study of Athens that appeared this year in the journal Climatic Change suggested that the ecological footprint of the urban heat island is one and a half to two times larger than the city’s political borders.

In other words, heat islands are “critical” to global warming, and yet have absolutely nothing to do with it. Amazing!

Now, Kotkin is right to say later in the piece that this excess heat leads to increased air-conditioning usage, which does contribute to actual global warming. But he fails to put it into the proper context, which is that cities still use far, far less energy per capita as suburbs, despite all the air-conditioning. And initiatives like Chicago’s green roof program can improve that even more, by lowering building temperatures and reducing the need for costly A/C.

Kotkin actually has some a decent point to make later in the piece, which is that not everyone lives in New York or wants to, so we have to think about ways to make suburbs more energy-efficient. But the degree of sophistry he uses to make his argument makes me loathe to recommend the piece as a whole.