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In Defense of Air-Conditioning

Opposition to air-conditioning is just another form of austerity politics. Nothing's too good for the working class — especially not freedom from the heat.

Air-conditioning units hang off the back side of a row of buildings on July 18, 2018 in Shenyang, Liaoning Province of China. VCG / Getty

The sweltering temperatures that have blanketed the world this summer haven’t just been uncomfortable — they’ve been downright deadly.

Last month, a heat wave in Québec took the lives of as many as ninety people. At least fifty-three people died in Montreal alone, the victim of temperatures that shot past 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). The city morgue reported being overwhelmed — the first time this has happened due to heat-related casualties.

The majority of those affected were from vulnerable communities, those who lived alone, and those suffering from chronic or mental illness. The poor, the sick, the elderly. Infants, whose internal temperature regulatory mechanisms remain underdeveloped. A lack of air-conditioning proved lethal.

All across the planet, blistering temperatures are sending people to their deathbeds. Some forty-four people died last month in Tokyo, eleven on one Saturday alone. Kumagaya, near the capital, registered the hottest temperature on record for the country: 41.1 degrees C (105.98 degrees F).

In May, Karachi, Pakistan suffered sixty-five deaths in three days when temperatures hit 44 degrees C (111 degrees F). In the south of Iran, security forces have suppressed violent protests as temperatures soar past 50 degrees C (122 degrees F).

We cannot attribute any individual extreme weather event to climate change — there is simply too much natural variability, and many types of disasters (including droughts, floods, and wildfires) have social and economic causes, not just meteorological ones. Take the recent wildfires in Greece. We shouldn’t downplay the role of European Union–imposed austerity in exacerbating conditions. As Yiannis Baboulias recently reported in the London Review of Books: “Firefighters often work on seasonal contracts, and in some cases their budget is so stretched they have to buy their own boots.” Likewise, during British Columbia’s recent record-busting wildfires, the province was briefly home to the worst air quality in the world — the result, at least in part, of a decade and a half of conservative governments that slashed public spending and ignored warnings from forestry and fire service experts about the need to remove dangerous forest fuels.

But even if we accept that individual extreme weather events and their impacts involve multiple factors, we can still say that the increased frequency, duration, and intensity of heat waves around the world are consistent with a warming planet. Worldwide, seventeen of the last eighteen years have been the hottest on record.

In 2003, much of Western Europe suffered through the region’s hottest summer on record since 1540, causing some seventy thousand excess deaths across the continent. France was hit especially hard, with 14,802 heat-related deaths (most of them elderly people). Air-conditioning was at the time, and still to a great extent, unusual in the country.

As the climate changes, we have to place as much emphasis on adapting to the warming that is already locked in as we do in mitigating its causes. And as part of this adaptation, we should view air-conditioning in most locations as a right.

The Right to Air-Conditioning

What would it mean to have a right to air-conditioning? Precisely, the right should be to have free or cheap, reliable access to the thermal conditions optimal for human metabolism (air temperatures of between 18 degrees C and 24 degrees C, according to the World Health Organization). Neither too hot nor too cold. The right to Goldilocks’s porridge, if you will.

New buildings must come with A/C as part of any “Green New Deal.” The aim of any program of publicly subsidized mass retrofitting of old buildings shouldn’t be just to fuel-switch away from gas heating and improve insulation, but also to install quiet, efficient air-conditioning systems. At the scale of the electricity grid, this demand must also include the requirement that A/C run on cheap, clean electricity.

The primary goal would be to save more lives. Of all natural disasters, heat waves are the deadliest, killing more than floods, hurricanes, or earthquakes. Currently, about 30 percent of the world’s population confronts conditions beyond the threshold where air temperature and humidity are life-threatening for more than twenty days a year. Even under scenarios assuming radical reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, researchers have concluded that by the end of the century, that percentage will climb to just under half. And if emissions keep growing as they have, it will increase to just shy of three-quarters.

It is no contrarian wheeze to demand air-conditioning for all.

But even outside of air-conditioning’s role as an essential, life-saving part of public health, for all of us, there is a pretty narrow range of temperature within which we are comfortable, most productive, cozy. This is no aesthetic preference or cultural artifact. It’s a product of that same biological requirement to maintain as close to optimal metabolic conditions as possible. Most healthy humans are not going to pop their clogs if they are immediately outside this range, but overheating can still badly affect them — causing fevers, headaches, nausea, heat rash, heart strain, dehydration, heatstroke, agitation, and confusion.

Tens of millions of people suffer from non-life-threatening but nonetheless severe health impacts and disruption of livelihoods. We are much more lethargic, less productive, and experience substantially reduced cognitive capacity. In extreme cases, people become too weak too work.

We have the technology to ensure everyone can live a decent, dignified, flourishing life — at optimum, comfortable thermal conditions. When it comes to being too cold, the technologies we use to get closer to Goldilocks temperature are pretty old: clothing and fire (or, more latterly, heating). And when it comes to being too hot, the technology we use to get closer to Goldilocks temperature is much younger: air-conditioning. But apart from its relative novelty, A/C is morally no different from clothing and fire.

Ascetics Against Air-Conditioning

Not everyone is sold on this idea. The summer always seems to provoke attacks on air-conditioning as a luxurious indulgence of the rich world, an example of overconsumption, an addiction.

“Air conditioning made Americans greedy and silly,” Karen Heller wrote in the Washington Post a couple summers ago. “Once the country got hooked on central air, strange things materialized: windows that don’t open, the office sweater in August, summer colds, Las Vegas, football in Phoenix.” She then humble-bragged about her family’s “greater tolerance, lower carbon footprint and puny electric bills, which are half the temperature outside.”

Granted, it is reasonable to ask whether football in Phoenix in mid-July is the most rational use of air-conditioning (although so long as the air-con is powered by clean electricity, why would it be any different from heating a hockey stadium in Montreal in the winter?). But putting that aside, how is this not just another form of judgmental conspicuous consumption, or rather conspicuous anti-consumption? Are the homeless of Denton, Texas “greedy and silly” for rushing to an air-conditioned shelter to escape the extreme heat? Should those in New Delhi just suck it up (even if they’re liable to faint from heat exhaustion)?

Others in Heller’s camp insist that instead of air-conditioning, we should depend on ceiling fans and shade from foliage, or construct buildings that employ passive cooling systems used “for thousands of years” in tropical and desert areas. Still others beg us to set our thermostat in the summer to “the highest temperature you can stand” and only use air-conditioning when it has become “really unbearable.” (The latter ascetics also suggest switching to a homemade fridge made from clay pots, sand, and water.)

These A/C haters offer the summer equivalent of National Sweater Day, whose partisans exhort us to wear more sweaters in instead of turning up the heat.

Greenpeace Asia has protested air-conditioning in shopping malls and the eco-pontiff, Pope Francis, denounced air-con in his encyclical, Laudato Si, as an example of humanity’s culture of instant gratification:

People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour, which at times appears self-destructive.

The Holy Father, who had perhaps forgotten that the Sistine Chapel had a new air-conditioning system installed in 2014 to protect the frescoes from the heat and sweaty breath of its six million gawping visitors, and that the Apostolic Palace’s four-hundred-year-old Secret Archive is likewise air-conned to preserve its thousands of historic documents, including Henry VIII’s appeal to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and the proceedings of the heresy trial of Galileo.

Pope Francis clearly cares about how humans have disrupted the ecosystem services upon which civilization depends, from climate change to biodiversity loss. And that is to be saluted. He is the first head of the Catholic Church to put the environment at the heart of his ministry. But his response, like that of some in the environmental movement, is not a humane one. It is a morality play in which fallen man has once again committed the sins of gluttony and pride, and to be redeemed, he must learn humility before the laws of nature.

They’d be better off dropping the obsession with individual asceticism and instead promote measures that will actually reduce emissions and improve the lot of humanity: regulation to promote rapid tech-switching, generous funding to the developing world, and public sector expansion that delivers low-cost, reliable, clean energy for all.

Four Hang-Ups

It is true that a radical expansion of air-conditioning worldwide poses four significant problems. Already, air-conditioning accounts for around 10 percent of global electricity demand. And by 2050, A/C use is set to triple, according to a recent report from the International Energy Agency — primarily as a result of growing demand in emerging economies such as India and China.

The first problem is that hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the chemicals often used in air-conditioning units, are powerful greenhouse gases. Fortunately, under a 2016 amendment to the Montreal Protocol, HFCs are set to be phased out and replaced with alternatives. The deal offers a temporary reprieve to developing countries with very hot average temperatures — they get to delay their phase-out until later next decade. While developing countries are harder hit by elevated temperatures — because they already tend to be warmer — they worry that opting for pricier climate-friendly cooling systems will cause more near-term deaths if fewer people can afford them.

This gets to the heart of one of the insidious dynamics in climate policy. Developing countries would be more open to adopting stricter climate target for themselves if the rich world were more open to keeping their promises to fund the clean transition. Yet at UN climate summit after UN climate summit, OECD nations rail against greater flows of what is called in the diplomacy racket “climate finance” — funds to cover the often high cost of clean-energy technology. They concede a billion here or there, and then within a few years welch on the minimal promise they made. Stepping up the fight for adequate climate finance to poorer countries must be part of any climate-justice strategy.

The second problem is that if the almost-certain increase in A/C use is powered by electricity from fossil sources, we’ll be cooling ourselves down by heating ourselves up. And we’ll be doing it by using the most carbon-intensive options, since fossil fuels like coal are still the dominant source in emerging economies. The third, related, problem is the air pollution from those same sources. In July, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded that up to a thousand people die annually in the eastern US alone due to the elevated fine particulate matter from increased use of fossil fuels to cool buildings. By saving ourselves, we’ll be killing ourselves.

However considerable these two challenges may be, we are capable right now of overcoming them by rapidly decarbonizing our electricity supply. We just can’t rely on private markets for the investment.

While it may seem fantastical in much of the US, north of the border, the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, and Québec have grids that are almost entirely fossil-fuel free (91 percent, 95 percent, and 99 percent clean, respectively), primarily from hydroelectric or nuclear power. The cleanest states in the US (Vermont, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) are also hydro and nuclear dependent. France, Sweden, Norway, and Finland all have high proportions of clean electricity as well, with the same sort of mix. And they show that the clean-energy switch can be carried out quickly. France decarbonized most of its electricity grid in about a decade by expanding its nuclear plants.

In almost all cases the build-out happened decades ago, before neoliberalism set it in and energy liberalization side-lined the public sector. The key, both then and now, is state intervention. Hydro and nuclear may provide some of the cheapest — and most reliable — electricity in the world, but constructing dams and reactors is capital-intensive. Private businesses are reluctant to invest without significant public subsidies or price guarantees. In order move the needle on greenhouse gas, we’ll need the public sector to shepherd the process.

The final problem is that air-conditioning is an energy suck, which makes it eye-wateringly expensive. ConEdison, the New York electric company, warns customers that for every degree they lower their thermostat, their bill will shoot up by 6 percent. And as long as electricity remains carbon-intensive, introducing a straight carbon tax — a form of a flat tax that targets consumption rather than income or wealth — would further burden the poor, making it more difficult for them to pay for air-conditioning.

Whatever mechanism we choose to eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions, it must be egalitarian. We cannot make the poor foot the bill for a problem for which they are the least responsible. It happens to be the case, though, that places like BC, Quebec, and France have some of the cheapest electricity in the world. Given the huge amount of electricity required to massively expand provision of air-conditioning, nuclear appears to be one of the only ways this can happen while doing so in a way that is cheap.

The bottom line is this: a right to air-conditioning is both morally just and entirely attainable — we simply have to make sure we don’t exacerbate climate change, air pollution, and energy poverty as we deliver it.

Nothing’s Too Good for the Working Class

From Montreal to Karachi, so many of the people who have died in recent heat waves have been those who lived alone, were elderly, or struggled with mental or chronic health issues. They often lacked something as simple as having someone who loved them enough to busybody them into getting somewhere with air-conditioning: “Come on Charlie, let’s go watch a movie. I don’t care that you aren’t in the mood, you old grouch. It’ll be nice and cool in the cinema. C’mon, popcorn’s on me.”

Neoliberalism required for its success the decimation of mass organizations and a thoroughgoing atomization of society. The destruction of eye-to-eye, tactile, rooted communities of solidarity — the world-historic and very strange new separation of each of us from our fellows — is surely one of the great under-recognized acts of capitalist vandalism. On some level, it’s not excess heat, but insufficient heart that is killing us.

Yet air-conditioning, while not sufficient, is absolutely necessary.

In fact, if you think about it, the abstemious green options — lifestyle changes, anti-consumption, the retreat from material demands — seem rather compatible with austerity and neoliberalism’s four-decade-long march. If the liberal good guys are all telling us we already have too much, isn’t it that much easier for the bosses to tell us the same thing?

Well, they’re wrong. Nothing’s too good for the working class, including a nice, cool, air-conned bedroom on a blazing summer’s eve. To the tumbrels with the fans of ceiling fans!