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.

271 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.

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.

ThomasEiden
ThomasEiden

I don't think I have enough fingers to count the number of fallacious or pseudo-scientific statements in this article. Just think of what sort of petty dictator this author would be if he was a politician like Bloomberg.

mahadragon
mahadragon

The reason we use twice as much A/C now compared to 20 yrs ago is lots more people are living in the desert. Population of areas like all of Southern CA, Phoenix, Arizona, Texas, Las Vegas, etc. have increased dramatically. These are areas where A/C is not an option but a survival tool. 

I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, none of my family members have A/C and none of them plan to get it either because it's a moderate climate. I currently live in Seattle and I don't have A/C. None of my dozen family members in Seattle have A/C either and don't need it either cause evenings get real cool.

SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1

Good luck with getting people to use less air conditioning. Why can't we find ways to power air conditioners more efficiently. With the planet getting warmer the long term need for cooling will be more not less.

matlock01
matlock01

It would be great if someone came up with an alternative to ac. Perhaps they should sponsor a contest!

StanleyJames
StanleyJames

stop driving big cars.  Insulate your home.  close the shades on the sunny side,  use flourescent lights,  get a day nightt thermostat.  Plug up all the leakes especially in the basement in cold climate areas.  Weatehr strip.  Get a more efficient heater and AC the nect time the old piece of junk needs more more $$ to ifx then its worth etc Put in ceiling fans in most often used rooms - feels a lot cooler and uses 10% of the pwoer a room AC uses

We've done all of those things, except the old booger of a 40 year old house heater doesnt want to die its natural death

Here in MD, our heating and AC bills are half of our neighbors in a very similar 4o year old house.

afmajret
afmajret

I'm guessing the author lives above the 42nd degree north latitude line. It gets warm enough there twice every other year. Try living in Arizona without AC. Be my guest.

 

bitcoinsky
bitcoinsky

Great article.  Save the trees!

DBritt
DBritt

While I can't argue with the sentiment behind this article, I wonder whether singling it particular activities is productive. Wouldn't the better solution be to price in the externality of carbon dioxide release in all our activities? That way we can decide how to spend it. See for instance feed in tariffs.

In any case, if we're going to target one particular activity it would have to be air travel.

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.

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.

hangooker
hangooker

@ThomasEiden -- Amen.  We have a sociologist making pronouncements about business operations, public policy and supposed "hard science" related to "global warming" aka "climate change".  He compares apples to mangos, while calling them both grapes, and then it only gets worse.

r0blove
r0blove

@mahadragon How odd.. I thought we used twice as much power now because of you Cali types charging your electric cars from coal-fired power plants.

auronlu
auronlu

@mahadragon I've turned my A/C on two times this year so far, both times for guests.

Southern California. On 95 degree days I just wear lighter clothes. It's not that difficult.

r0blove
r0blove

@SmoothEdward1 Umm... we have found ways to power them more efficiently..  that's why they're more efficient.

littleredtop
littleredtop

@SmoothEdward1 Good idea!  Why can't we power our AC units with the ever increasing heat from the sun.  Small steam turbines could power small generators which in turn would power our AC units.  And, the best part of this solution is that it's basically low tech and once the unit is installed there would be no further expense. 

r0blove
r0blove

@matlock01 Someone tried to push DC way back when...  what's your idea for an alternative?

r0blove
r0blove

@StanleyJames That's awesome!  Too bad you can't spell as well as the average second grader!

CobaltBomb
CobaltBomb

@afmajret Use a swamp cooler and live with it. It's your choice to live there.

r0blove
r0blove

@DBritt No, the better solution would be to stop pretending that carbon dioxide levels emitted by people have anything to do with the current temperature.

DBritt
DBritt

Singling OUT. Sorry, written on a phone.

scctmp7011
scctmp7011

@r0blove @StanleyJames StanleyJames shares the positive things that he is doing and the only thing you can do is come back with an insult about his spelling.  That is a sad reflection on you that you have to try to make someone feel bad for no good reason. No love from"r0blove".

hangooker
hangooker

@CobaltBomb @afmajret -- actually, many people don't "choose" to live where they live.  Many people can only get a job in a certain place and that is where they live.  

DeniseRae
DeniseRae

@CobaltBomb @afmajret I live in Palm Springs and swamp coolers are good for maybe two months, then you need the a/c. Then you have people like me that can't use swamp coolers because it affects my asthma. Right it's my choice and it is also MY choice to use my a/c.

afmajret
afmajret

@CobaltBomb @afmajret I don't live there, just saying it is easy for people who live in cooler climates to give people who don't advice about air conditioning usage. How about the northern tier cut back on their use of heat during the winter?


DBritt
DBritt

@r0blove We have an obligation to leave the Earth in as good a condition as we received it.  It is shameful to take such a blithe attitude about the future of the planet.

r0blove
r0blove

@afmajret @CobaltBomb I live in a cool climate, and I love my central air. Not that we need to use it all that often, since the lefty claimed manmade global warming hasn't actually warmed anything up...