Editorial: Air conditioning saves lives

Published on Monday, 12 June 2017 12:06 - Written by

It has become a reliable summer tradition - folks in comfortable northern climes explaining to Texans and other southerners how we should be living without air conditioning.

But air conditioning saves lives, and it should be celebrated, not demonized as a luxurious driver of climate change.

“Since the technology was invented in 1902, and the first window unit was brought to market in 1939, air conditioners have become ubiquitous in the United States,” writes the Boston Globe’s Leon Neyfakh. “Today, almost 90 percent of American households have one-as do the vast majority of restaurants, stores, museums, and office buildings. During weeks like the one we’ve just had, these places are sanctuaries: To walk into one after being outside is to be reminded how sweet life can be.”

But air conditioning comes at a cost.

“In China and India, air conditioning sales have reportedly been growing by 20 percent per year; around the world, air conditioning energy demand is projected to increase vastly over the next decades,” Neyfakh writes. “According to Stan Cox, author of the 2010 book ‘Losing Our Cool,’ air conditioning in the United States already has a global-warming impact equivalent to every U.S. household driving an extra 10,000 miles per year.”

The Globe is employing a curious rhetorical trick here; it’s writing about the impact China and India is having and will have, but also about the impact that the U.S. had in the past.

The reason is obvious. U.S. carbon emissions continue to fall or at least remain steady, as our electrical grid converts to cheaper and cleaner natural gas for generation, and as China and India ramp up their use of coal-fired plants.

In other words, we aren’t the problem.

Of course, the Globe reminiscences quite romantically (and unrealistically) about life before air conditioning.

“The human body is quite well suited to deal with heat if we let it, and if we back away just a little bit from our assumptions about what it means to be comfortable, it’s easy to picture an alternate reality in which, instead of flipping on the Freon at the slightest provocation, we learn to cope with the air we have,” the newspaper writes.

And predictably, it brings up porch culture - lamenting that in the mid-century, people started going inside in the evenings.

It’s true air conditioning changed how we live - but mostly in good ways.

“Many of the central changes in our society since World War II would not have been possible were air conditioning not keeping our homes and workplaces cool,” The Atlantic wrote in 2015. “Florida, Southern California, Texas, Arizona, Georgia and New Mexico all experienced above-average growth during the latter half of the 20th century - hard to imagine without air conditioning. In fact, the Sunbelt’s share of the nation’s populations exploded from 28 percent in 1950 to 40 percent in 2000.”

Lives were changed and even saved, as deaths from heat declined.

Strange, though, that the Globe leaves out one climate factor - heating oil, which many northern homes rely upon during their harsh winters.