This past weekend, while tens of millions sweltered and withered in the triple-digit heat and all-time heat records snapped like matchsticks across the eastern United States, I had a small epiphany: We need climate change. Just think about it. What would our society do without it?
In our day, records, we might say, especially if preceded with that scintillating qualifier “all-time,” are the opiate of the masses, and hence the lifeblood of the media. In every area of human endeavor, increasingly sated by the sheer ubiquity of entertainment and “news,” we have come to require an extra source of stimulus to keep us interested. Merely winning a game or an award is not enough—“unprecedented” feats must be achieved, records must be broken. But of course, the problem with records is that, almost by definition, they should usually become more and more difficult to break as time goes on, and hence more and more rarely broken. It is relatively easy to establish a new record when they’ve only just started keeping them; rather more difficult when they’ve been tracking for a couple hundred years. (I was reminded of this recently when a garden-variety warm spell in Scotland prompted a newspaper headline to exclaim “Record-breaking heat hits Scotland”; upon looking more closely, I learned that one recording station had managed to beat its record for that date, and that station had been established in 2007.)
And so we have had to come up with ways of outwitting the recalcitrance of the record books, and the ways in which we have done so are a testimony to human ingenuity.
The simplest, cheapest, and most versatile means of “record inflation” is of course inflation itself, usable in any context where the records in question are economic (which nowadays, means almost any context). The simple fact that money is forever becoming less valuable means that, for any record measured in dollar amounts, one can indefinitely keep establishing new records. “The largest bankruptcy in history”; “the largest IPO in history”; “the largest budget deficit in history,” etc. This fact has proven particularly useful in the entertainment history, which thrives on the collective buzz we all receive at the mention of the word “record.” Box office statistics accordingly give the impression that we are forever being overwhelmed with brilliant, immensely successful films, each more wildly triumphant than the previous, despite our nagging sense that today’s films feel more like an epidemic of mediocrity. Indeed, box office statistics, not content with the benefits of inflation (and ticket prices have risen faster than the average inflation rate) and of ever-increasing populations and theater counts, have resorted to additional stratagems, such as premium-priced 3D and IMAX tickets, gimmicks like midnight showings, and more, to make sure they are always establishing new records.
In pursuits where physical rather than financial achievement is at stake, the record barriers cannot be so easily swept aside. After all, the human body does not naturally inflate in its capacities as time goes on, and medicinal and nutritional advances can only do so much. The bluntest way of confronting this problem is the steroid, by which human muscles can indeed be inflated by artificial means. This has proven baseball’s preferred means of supplying the needed record inflation; unfortunately, however, it tends only to achieve consistently positive effects on batting statistics, so baseball has increasingly lagged behind in the record generation race, perhaps part of the reason for its decline in popularity.
Basketball has discovered a more elegant solution, one that requires no physical intervention in the sport: simply invent new record categories. After all, there really is almost no theoretical limit to the number of different records that could be tracked. If you have the choice between reporting of a game, “The Miami Heat trounced the Lakers tonight after a sterling performance by Lebron James” and saying, “In a stunning performance against the Lakers tonight, Lebron James established a new record for consecutive games with at least 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists against teams from California!” which would you choose? It’s a no-brainer, as the sports journalism industry has shown us.
The Olympic Games, as might be expected, has pooled the best ideas from different sports to address this problem, making extensive use of steroids and record category invention, plus its own specialty—new forms of scorekeeping. By overhauling the scoring systems used in gymnastics and figure skating, the Olympics gave competitors a clean slate for creating new record scores, which was a boon to commentators tired of breathlessly informing the public, “That was the first time anyone’s ever landed a triple-axle, triple-toe-loop, double-jump combination in international competition, although last year we did see a triple-axle, triple-jump, double-toe-loop combination several times!” But the Olympics’ bread-and-butter, when it comes to record inflation, is technological innovation. New shoes and new ergonomically-designed suits can get runners to the finish line several tenths of a second faster than Harold Abrahams in those old-fashioned white shorts. Best of all, in swimming, not only can they forever tweak the suit design, but the swimming pool design as well. Both in Sydney and Beijing, bedazzled audiences were treated to a stunning barrage of record-breaking thanks to “the fastest pools ever designed.” I have little doubt that scientists preparing for the London Olympics have been experimenting with ways to create frictionless water.
Weather, then, is the last great unconquerable frontier. Lying outside the realm of human manipulation (so we had thought), it seemed doomed to thwart our record-breaking ambitions. Left to itself, nature was sure to produce fewer and fewer “unprecedented” events the longer we sat around observing it closely. To be sure, you will occasionally get the heat wave that comes along to set a new record at a station with 200 years of observations, but unfortunately, it’s not likely to happen again for at least 200 years, statistically speaking. Meteorologists have of course made extensive use of the record category invention strategy, so that it is not uncommon to read reports like this, “While not setting any absolute record maximums, this heat wave did establish a new record at several sites for consecutive days with a maximum above 90 degrees and a minimum above 70 degrees.” But this strategy is heavily subject to the law of diminishing returns, especially as the media, always strangely prone to befuddlement when it comes to matters meteorological, find such records too much of a mouthful to report. No, if the media is to whip up the masses into a frenzy of glued-to-the-screen enthusiasm, they need a steady stream of snappy-sounding new records to report.
For this, climate change is our savior, providing a veritable ratings bonanza over the past decade or two. Worst heat waves, worst cold waves, strongest low pressure systems, biggest blizzards, strongest hurricanes, most hurricanes, earliest hurricanes, latest hurricanes, most tornadoes, strongest tornadoes, worst floods, worst droughts, warmest months, “ever recorded”—the superlatives roll on and on. And best of all, since climate change should keep on worsening for the foreseeable future, we can count on all these new records being broken over and over again. What more could a weather buff want?