Air Conditioning Myths and Cold Facts

An often-disparaged technology, air conditioning is a lifesaver, not a luxury.

Public misconceptions about air conditioning are on a collision course with accelerating climate change. Gaining knowledge, in this case, is not only cool, it holds the key for contending with ever more frequent heat waves — like the devastating heat dome that is smothering major portions of the United States and Europe.

The International Energy Agency estimated in 2018 that only 8 percent of the 2.8 billion people living in the world’s hottest places have access to an air conditioner. As the climate changes, many people may end up being blindsided by deadly heat waves that resemble nothing like they’ve ever experienced before.

Mistaking Cooling vs Heating

One major misconception is that air conditioning is worse for the environment compared to heating. The truth is that heating a home uses considerably more energy than cooling one does. 

A 2020 study found that homes located in the coldest parts of the United States used considerably more energy and largely emitted more greenhouse gases than those in the warmest parts of the country did. 

A 2013 study concluded that living in colder climates in the United States demands more overall energy than living in warmer climates does: Climate control in Minneapolis uses about three and a half times more energy than it does in Miami.

The Cold Truth is Often Overheated

Throughout history, Western cultures have tended to view the production of artificial heat as healthy and necessary. By the mid-1800s, Americans had developed a global reputation for massively overheating their buildings (a trait that Charles Dickens famously complained about).

Indoor cooling is a different story. More people do remember a time before it existed.

In American cities in the 1800s people perished regularly in stuffy and crowded homes and apartments. “This is the harvest season for death’s reaper,” wrote one observer of sweltering summers in the poorest areas of New York City. Bacteria thrived in hot and unsanitary conditions, spreading illness. 

Air-conditioning detractors make the erroneous comparison that people managed to survive for millennia without it. From this point of view, sweltering weather is a natural reality that humans shouldn’t meddle with.

The same, of course, is true for vaccines, antibiotics, and sewer systems. People survived without them, apart from the ones who didn’t. 

The Deadliest Numbers

Even today, a lot of people don’t survive extreme heat events. At least 600 people die each year in the United States from extreme heat events: That’s more deaths than from storms, floods, and lightning combined, according to climate researcher Kelly Sanders. 

That figure is probably a major underestimate, because the U.S. medical system still struggles to attribute deaths to heat or track how many such deaths take place. Heat injuries and deaths also cost money. A 2012 case study covering data from 11 U.S. states in found that the costs from heat-related injuries and deaths totaled over $10 billion. These costs are expected to rise as the country heats up.

Who is Suffering — and Being Helped

Young people, the elderly, people with disabilities, and those who must labor outside face the most risk from heat, although everyone is vulnerable. 

A study published in 2016 found that Americans’ risk of death on a very hot day has fallen by 80 percent since the 1939-1959 period, with most of the gain coming after 1960 —an improvement researchers attributed almost entirely to the spread of home air conditioning. That’s a number that would translate into 20,000 more deaths each year in the US if we maintained midcentury rates of heat-related deaths today. 

Researchers also found that this protective effect was particularly strong among vulnerable populations, including Black Americans and those ages 65 and up. This pattern holds true globally. A major 2021 research report in the Lancet estimated that, globally, access to air conditioning averted 195,000 heat-related deaths among people ages 65 and older in 2019.

In simplest terms, then, millions of people are alive today who would be dead if not for air conditioning.

Can We Protect People while Protecting the Planet?  

While there are many programs in the United States that help people afford to run heaters, far fewer programs exist for air conditioning. During last summer’s heat wave, Washingtonians couldn’t use the over $60 million the state received from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a federal initiative that pays for utility bills, on air conditioning bills: State rules mandated that the funds could only be used for heating. Other states, such as Massachusetts, have similar rules on the books.

The first step should be acknowledging that the existence of air conditioning isn’t the problem: It’s that we use it and distribute it so unequally, with gigantic luxury office buildings and fancy condos using far too much of it, while sweltering, older apartment buildings often go without. 

In this light, we should pass laws that ensure that people who need access to air conditioning are able to access it and are (equally importantly) able to pay for it. These laws will also need to be written in such a way that ensures the cost of air conditioning isn’t simply passed on from landlord to tenant.

If we want to distribute cooling more fairly, we will need to come up with smarter and more efficient technologies. Electric pump technology can now heat and cool homes with more efficiency than either a furnace or a traditional air conditioner, and it’s becoming more popular in the United States, including in icy-cold places like Maine. New refrigerants like R-32 have much lower Global Warming Potential.

We will also have to undergo an extensive (and expensive) process of retrofitting existing air-conditioning systems and homes. Older air-conditioning systems use far more energy and are much harder to meter than newer systems. We can design new buildings and renovate old ones in ways that ensure they require less air conditioning to remain safely cool during hot days—and we can even draw inspiration from the architects of the ancient past. 

Climate change is real, and air conditioning use is indisputably helping warm the planet. But we can’t demand people go without cooling technology that can save their lives—and that will become even more necessary as the planet warms. Human beings vulnerable to death and injury from heat are not collateral damage in the war against climate change. [QHEAC]

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