If you were out of town early last week, you missed the record low temperatures brought to the area by the polar vortex. While single-digit and even sub-zero weather is not unheard of in much of the North and Midwest, it's a rarity here in Charleston, and rarer still when it covers as much of the nation as last week's system did. Now that our brains have had enough time to thaw out, it's time for us to think about all the interesting things the polar vortex of 2014 can teach us.
The first thing the vortex taught us is that some elements of the conservative media are still remarkably interested in pushing the idea that climate change isn't real. They do this by pointing out that the planet cannot possibly be getting warmer because of cold weather systems like this most recent one. Perennial talker Rush Limbaugh even went so far as to claim that the term "polar vortex" was created to advance the global warming hoax, a nasty bit of trickery perpetrated by scientists in order to get sovereign Americans to submit to the United Nations' Agenda 21, which, presumably, will take away our axes so we can't chop down trees in between praying to Jesus and reading the Constitution.
There are a couple of problems with this. First off, it's useful to note that "climate change" and "global warming" are simply shorthand ways to talk about a wealth of scientific studies examining the gradual changes to the earth's atmosphere that have taken place over a very long period of time and exactly what is causing those changes. The science is complex and the causes are many, but make no mistake, it is happening regardless of all of our personal political beliefs. However, the same faulty logic that conservatives use to refute evolution — "So why aren't monkeys evolving into people right now, then?"— they're now using when it comes to climate change, i.e. how can the planet possibly get hotter if it gets freezing cold once in awhile.
As for Limbaugh's claim that "polar vortex" was a term made up to hype the storm, well, I hate to break it to him but the term first appeared in an 1853 article entitled "Air Maps" in something called Littell's Living Age.
But enough about the odd ideas floating around on AM radio and various online "news" sites. For those of us living in Charleston — and not some right-wing fantasy land where President Obama built a time-machine to travel back in time to change his birth certificate — the record cold taught us many valuable things about our friends and neighbors.
We learned, for instance, that when 100,000 McMansion owners all turn their heat up to 80 F at the same time, the power grid collapses. Many took this as yet another failure of the area's infrastructure, but I'm not sure this is the case, at least not entirely.
Power grids are often stressed in times of extreme temperature since the natural reaction of most Americans when they're faced with adverse weather conditions is to reach for the dial that controls the temperature in our homes and crank it one way or the other. After all, most of us have that luxury and it's somehow easier than, say, figuring out how to dress appropriately.
Granted, rolling blackouts are something that should not happen in 21st-century America, but it's hardly in me to worry about people living in 6,000-square foot houses who whine about the power being temporarily off when some people worry each winter about having enough money to pay for heat. Coincidentally, I would guess that many of these same McMansion owners also spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about their high power bill and how they refuse to pay any more for power, which — let's face it — is the reason we have a crummy power grid. You get what you pay for. You want cheap energy, America? Well, you get a cheap grid to provide it, too.
Last but not least, we learned that the Charleston County Sheriff's Office is run by some decent folks. Last week during the polar vortex, Sheriff Al Cannon opened the work center on Leeds Avenue as a "warming shelter" for area homeless last week. Make no mistake, this was a nice gesture — yes, I could be cynical about it, but I won't be right now — but there was more. The sheriff's office also announced that it would not be doing background checks on those seeking shelter, and that right there really deserves commendation. At a time when many homeless might have to weigh freezing to death versus possible jail time, Al Cannon made the right call.