Viewpoint: Air-Conditioning Will Be the End of Us

Trying to engineer hot weather out of existence in an age of man-made global warming is indefensible

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Earlier this week, as the temperature in New York City hit the upper 90s and the heat index topped 100, my utility provider issued a heat alert and advised customers to use air-conditioning “wisely.” It was a nice, polite gesture but also an utterly ineffectual one. After all, despite our other green tendencies, most Americans still believe that the wise way to use air conditioners is to crank them up, cooling down every room in the house — or even better, relax in the cold blasts of a movie theater or shopping mall, where someone else pays the bills. Today Americans use twice as much energy for air-conditioning as we did 20 years ago, and more than the rest of the world’s nations combined. As a climate-change adaptation strategy, this is as dumb as it gets.

I’m hardly against air-conditioning. During heat waves, artificial cooling can save the lives of old, sick and frail people, and epidemiologists have shown that owning an AC unit is one of the strongest predictors of who survives during dangerously hot summer weeks. I’ve long advocated public-health programs that help truly vulnerable people, whether isolated elders in broiling urban apartments or farm workers who toil in sunbaked fields, by giving them easy access to air-conditioning.

(MORE: How to Survive a Heat Wave)

I also recognize that air conditioners can enhance productivity in offices and make factories safer for workers who might otherwise wilt in searing temperatures. Used conservatively — say, to reduce indoor temperatures to the mid-70s in rooms that, because of shortsighted design, cannot be cooled by cross-ventilation from fans and windows — air conditioners may well generate enough benefits to balance the indisputable, irreversible damage they generate. But in most situations, the case for air-conditioning is made of hot air.

What’s indefensible is our habit of converting homes, offices and massive commercial outlets into igloos on summer days, regardless of how hot it is outdoors. Recently, New York City prohibited stores from pumping arctic air out onto the searing sidewalks in an attempt to lure customers while burning through fossil fuels in suicidal fashion. I can’t help but wonder whether cities like New York will ever prohibit stores from cooling their facilities below, say, 70°F. No doubt a law like that would raise even more objections than Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to ban big sodas, but it might well be necessary if we can’t turn down the dial on our own.

(MORE: Why Summer in the City Will Get Deadlier)

I’m skeptical that American businesses and consumers will reduce their use of air-conditioning without new rules and regulations, especially now that natural gas has helped bring down energy bills and the short-term costs of cranking the AC are relatively low. Part of the problem is that in recent decades, the fastest-growing U.S. cities — places like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Austin — have effectively been built on air-conditioning. (This is also true in the Middle East and Asia, and as a result, global energy consumption is soaring precisely when it needs to be lowered.) Throughout the country, most designs for new office, commercial and residential property rely entirely on AC, rather than on time-honored cooling technologies such as shading from trees and cross-ventilation from windows and fans. As a result, there is now an expectation that indoor air will be frigid on even the steamiest days everywhere from the Deep South to the Great West. What’s worse, this expectation is spreading to the nations where American culture carries influence; sales of air conditioners rose 20% in India and China last year.

Trying to engineer hot weather out of existence rather than adjust our culture of consumption for the age of climate change is one of our biggest environmental blind spots. If you can’t stand the heat, you should know that blasting the AC will ultimately make us all even hotter. Let’s put our air conditioners on ice before it’s too late.

291 comments
JensenMott
JensenMott

It's crazy how much energy we use from air conditioning nowadays. People think that it just comes from some plant with endless supplies. Really, though, we need to be conserving energy as much as possible to keep the world going. 

Jensen |  http://www.aplusheatandair.ca/en/services.html 


FatmirFati
FatmirFati

Air conditioners have become important part of our lives by providing the benefits of comfortable working, living and leisure environments www.climatecontrolse.co.uk

scbelljr
scbelljr

I've read a few interesting studies linking climate controlled environments to obesity.  The idea is that our bodies have to expend less energy moderating our internal temperature when we live in a constant 72 degree environment.  Makes a lot of sense.  

I lived in Santiago, Chile for several years.  AC is virtually non-existent there, with the exception of high-rise office buildings.  Even $500K houses typically do not come equipped with central AC. 

ertdfg
ertdfg

"I’m skeptical that American businesses and consumers will reduce their use of air-conditioning without new rules and regulations, especially now that natural gas has helped bring down energy bills and the short-term costs of cranking the AC are relatively low."

No worries, cleafrly if peopel won't do what you want them to do, your only choice is to grsab power, remove their choices, and force them into compliance with your will.

In a dictatorship like ours, what other choice is there?  Get some power, force people to comply, and make them do as you say.  Good to see that freedom and liberty are concepts you won't let stand in your desire for power over everything, even something as miniscule as my AC setting.

If you can't control every choice every person makes every day, that would have to make any petty tyrant mad enough to lash out and write an article.  Lets give this man control over every single choice we make.. I'm sure he's only controlling us for our own good.

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” - C.S. Lewis

 

IronyCurtain
IronyCurtain

Note to parents of students attending NewYork University: this professor's hilarious article is iron clad proof that your child's degree will be utterly worthless.

IronyCurtain
IronyCurtain

Speaking of "as dumb as it gets" can you think of anything dumber than a smug and pompous liberal sitting in his home in August with the AC off because he STILL believes in the Global Warming Hoax, while he agonizes over how to control the lives of everyone else on earth?

jhngalt9
jhngalt9

It takes more energy to heat buildings in colder climates than cooling them in warmer climates. NYC should be shut down.

alex.kasper
alex.kasper

Jut moved to Berlin, Germany and A/C is rare. 

All the buildings have cross ventilation and open-able windows. But buses, trains - no! Just windows that open.

It's bad, but not as horrible as you might think - you get used to it. The best part is that living in the middle of the city, you can open your windows at night for a cool breeze - and it's incredibly quiet as there is no constant machine drone from HVAC units.

AustinRockland
AustinRockland

If there were jobs in the Rust Belt people would be moving there instead of boom towns like Austin, Las Vegas, etc.  But people in general seem to prefer hot summers over cold winters.

Rototime
Rototime

Ridiculous article. As long as we are banishing airconditioning that means all buildings (NYC has no openable windows in its hot glass towers), all cars (about the same AC capacity of a house due to insolation and lack of insulation), all trains, buses, and ships. Also, global warming causes far more than warming. It also causes extreme cold spells in new locations. Therefore, shut off all heat because otherwise that would constitute fighting global warming with man-made heat energy. Just get "use to it". :)

Fortuitous1
Fortuitous1

>35% of the peak energy consumption in buildings and homes, during the summer months, comes from the air conditioning systems.  Ironically this consumption takes place when the sun is out (go figure!).  There are a number of manufacturers that are now selling combined systems A/C installed that come with solar panels to power the A/C compressors.  There are still significant rebates from utilities and federal tax credits available for home owners who purchase these systems.  

http://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/solar-assisted-air-conditioning-comes-to-market.html

 This should the norm in new home construction, and more incentives should be made available for home owners who upgrade  their A/C systems.

meloair1976
meloair1976

@Fortuitous1Unfortunately, with most solar assisted HVAC units today, the panels power a condenser motor and that is about it. They aren't all that efficient. There are far better ways to be more efficient with cooling and heating than solar panels. This is more about a manufacturer trying to jump on the subsidized bandwagon and not actually providing a product that reduces energy consumption.

united_we_stand
united_we_stand

Regulations is why all new buildings are built with air conditioners. The solution to this problem caused by regulations is more regulations? I cannot construct an earthhouse and other green buildings which dont need cooling precisely because of regulations. I found there may be one county in the US which may allow it  and that is a big maybe. There are passive cooling systems which dont need electricity but again good luck trying to get a permit due to regulations. We Americans cannot use our ingenuity to solve the problem because regulations are holding us back.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Seriously, TIME Magazine??  You really re-posted this article??

There's not a grain of science provided by the author to support his claims.

rmcmahon2
rmcmahon2

Yes, there are some buildings which have temperatures way too low....they could turn up the thermostat with no problem.  We're in this together, like it or not.    As he points out, despite efficiency improvements, Americans still use twice as much power as 20 years ago, which surprised me.   As much as I like the desert, don't think I'd want to be living there when the water runs out. 

agi
agi

Great article. My family only turns on the AC on really hot days, and have gotten ourselves accustomed to about 74 degrees F. As a result, we no longer feel the need for it most of the time. (Average summer daily high temp in our area is 86 degrees F.) On visits to the U.S. I have to carry a sweater during the summer because the buildings are just too cold.



vstillwell
vstillwell

Well, with the ongoing droughts and hot weather, living in the Southwest might not be so desirable in the near future. The lakes that feed those cities are drying up. No water, no cities. Just saying. 

SactoMan81
SactoMan81

I  think the author doesn't realize today's 2013 technology air conditioners use WAY less power and use modern refrigerants that don't damage the ozone, either. A modern "4 ton" A/C compressor for a whole house climate control system uses less power than the older "3 ton" A/C compressors of old.

r0blove
r0blove

@SactoMan81 I'm sure he does realize it, but doesn't care.  He just wants to pretend man-made global warming is killing us.