How the dream of air conditioning turned into the dark future of climate change
In 2023, Jeep rolled out a new edition of its popular four-wheel-drive SUV. For the first time since the company introduced the car in 1986, air conditioning wasn’t an option, it was a must. This appears to be the end of an era: “The last car in the U.S. without standard air conditioning,” read the headline of an article in the automotive press, “finally gives up the fight against refrigerant.”
This summer, all across the torrid globe, air conditioning was a necessity for billions of people, though less than a third of households have it. In the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, it offered defence against not just the heat but also the eerie orange smoke from Canadian wildfires exacerbated by climate change. In Phoenix, where the temperature rose above 110 degrees for weeks on end, temporary cooling centers were a lifesaver for homeless people, though hundreds of heat-related deaths were confirmed or suspected throughout the metropolitan area. In Europe, where air conditioning is evolving from an eccentric, American-style indulgence to a standard amenity, AC offered a critical defence against a heat wave so powerful and persistent that the Europeans gave the high-pressure system causing it a name, “Cerberus,” after the mythological three-headed hellhound who guards the gates of Hades.
As temperature records were broken across the planet this summer, you could sense something shift in our relationship to air conditioning. Billions of people in the Global South and other hot zones still live without household air conditioning. And the cost of remedying that is staggering. But it isn’t just the financial challenge of manufacturing and distributing more cooling systems. The environmental costs are terrifying, too. Making internal spaces cooler for humans means making external environments hotter for all living things, with more industrial production, shipping and energy consumption, all of which contribute to the buildup of greenhouse gases.
But even in places where air conditioning has been standard for decades, including the United States (where, according to the International Energy Agency, more than 90 percent of households have artificial cooling), how the technology intersects with fundamental feelings about safety and well-being is changing. Older Americans, who can still recall the preternatural cool of movie theaters as a rare escape from the tedious heat of summer, must now consider the physical stress of hot weather as a significant determinant of mortality.
Heat’s hidden risk
Summers now last longer — well past the autumnal equinox in many places — and as hot weather spreads to more clement regions, schools must consider the effects on learning without air conditioning. A 2020 study predicted that if temperatures in the contiguous United States rise as predicted, by 2050 students will learn on average 10 percent less each year. The effects are cumulative, and students without AC in their schools, who often live in cooler regions of the country, are the most vulnerable. (Excerpt from ‘Addicted to cool‘, washingtonpost.com, 2023)
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