Conditioned

The choice of font for the Blair’s Air Conditioning and Heating company says a lot about what we want. The letters are coated in snow;1 we wish, at least initially, to go from one extreme temperature to another, and may the Floridian that has never had to wear a jacket to an indoor activity be the first to deny it.

Enjoyment of extremes — which can also be seen at beaches — is just one of the methods for weaning ourselves off of refrigerated air that Stan Cox suggests in his book, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer).2 As a person from the North of a country in the North of a continent in the Northern hemisphere, I was, until I moved to St Petersburg, fairly uninterested in air-conditioning. Being dependent on electricity, I had imagined that cleaning up its environmental impact would be a simple matter of changing the energy source, at least compared to improving heating systems based on natural gas. But air-conditioning is more than just an ironic indicator of the problems we face in preventing a warming planet. Cox shows that it has changed our world in ways that are hard to comprehend.

The following figures are approximate. Air-conditioning now accounts for a third of electricity use in the U.S. (20% in homes, 13% in the commercial sector). The same amount of electricity is used for AC today as for all purposes in 1955. Between 1993 and 2005, the total amount of energy used for AC doubled. Each American uses as much electricity for AC as 3 Africans use for all of their needs. We would create as much pollution if every U.S. household bought an additional vehicle and drove it around for 7000 miles per year. I cannot bring myself to depress you with the figures projected for AC’s increasing use as the Earth heats up.

The direct energy burdens air-conditioning creates are only part of the story. As Cox points out, “from the desert Southwest to the Everglades, air-conditioning has played an essential role in drawing millions of people to some of the country’s most fragile environments.” It has acted as a bridge between the places humans can naturally thrive and other glorious forms of destruction. For example, a 2006 report by the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition shows that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approves more permits to destroy wetlands in Florida than any other state, approving 12,000 permits between 1999 and 2003. The number of applications rejected: one. Gary Mormino of the University of South Florida is quoted as saying that it is “inconceivable” that 18.5 million people would be in Florida today without AC.

Even without population growth, domestic use of AC would have exploded. The excesses documented are some of the most infuriating problems in the book, but they may well prove the easiest to solve. They include cooling empty winter homes in the summer to protect possessions, and homeowners associations that ban visible fans or window air-conditioning units — both less wasteful than centralized air — on the grounds of aesthetics. More troublesome is the fact that in the last half of the twentieth century, average housing size doubled and per occupant floor space tripled. An “efficient” 3000 square foot house uses far more energy than a leaky 1500 square foot house.

That other great twentieth century innovation, the car, would also be a much different beast without artificially cooled air. A typical vehicle in Hawaii uses 94 gallons of gasoline per year just to run the AC unit; in Arizona the amount is 76, in Florida, 73. When you add all the numbers together, the national cost is 7 billion gallons of fuel annually, or 5.5% of the total — a point worth remembering as we hit peak oil. A habit has developed among some of leaving AC blowing in vehicles whilst they wait in parking lots for their owners’ return. Wealthy Americans can now store their pride-and-joy mid-life-crisis indicators in climate-controlled rooms known as car condos. Cox even ponders whether AC is responsible for the United States’ wider car culture: “It seems worth asking whether the working people of America would be in open revolt by now against the mind-numbing ordeal of ever-lengthening commutes were it not for air-conditioning” and other mobile comforts and distractions.

We should be glad that that band of hippies, the U.S. military, is working on expanding its use of renewable energy, as at present, 85% of the diesel taken into Iraq and Afghanistan is used to run AC. Air-conditioning may not only have made invasions of intensely hot countries possible, it may have made them even more inhumane than they otherwise would have been. Troops in air-conditioned Humvees rather than open top vehicles can’t easily interact with locals, adding to the illusion of the war video game. The concern is not so much hearts and minds as heat and melting.

Air control has affected our health in many ways, including our ability to cope with extreme heat. But as air-conditioning is often not just a health issue, but a life or death issue — as the Immokalee farm workers, living in metal trailers based on oven blueprints, know to their peril[4] — what is the solution? Among his conclusions, Cox undermines several prominent lines of thinking that dominate present climate policy.

The first is that striving for energy efficient appliances is worthwhile under our current program of perpetual economic growth. Efficiency at present simply lowers prices for both producers and consumers of energy and results in higher levels of consumption. The governments Energy Information Agency, for example, expects a 22% increase in commercial sector cooling over the next 20 years, even with improvements in efficiency — the growth of the sector will undo any technological gains made, and then some. This effect is called rebound, and it explains why nothing other than a large global recession seems able to even dent our carbon dioxide output. The only way to slash emissions sufficiently is to cut overall energy use, and that means dumping economic growth.

The second myth, which is found all over the political spectrum, is that we are going to trade our way out of trouble. If there is anybody left who still can’t see a problem with markets, and that accepts climate change science, one simple fact devastates their proposed path to sustainability. Under solely market forces, U.S. renewable energy generation is expected to quadruple by 2030, but that will only provide enough energy to power 75% of AC use, let alone anything else. This again shows that attempting to meet current energy demands rather than using less of it is unlikely to be enough.

In response to these problems, Cox pads his technological and efficiency-based tree shades and solar-powered systems in a bed of other elegant solutions. He shows that when we choose to try and live in natural temperatures, our bodies participate in regulating our internal thermometers, and our tolerance grows as a result. Cooling centers could provide a way to give relief to everyone, whilst bringing us out of the individual homes that air-conditioning has sent us hiding in to. Tough truths also have to be accepted and acted upon. Air-conditionings demands only add to the need to reduce our dependence on the private vehicle. States like Florida need to restrict the over development that is ramping up Northern flight and sending them into the Gulf of Mexico (although the crushing of Amendment 4 by big money this past November 2nd demonstrates how hard this may be[5]). We may simply need to leave some hot areas for good.

Air-conditioning activism provides no excitement for anybody. It allows us neither the glory of storming the local coal power station or the feel-good easiness of eco-shopping. It is so boring in fact that I can barely bring myself to pump up this concluding paragraph. But, as the rest of the world climbs towards American levels of use, we must deal with it. Serious work on sustainability sometimes requires confrontation with drab subjects. The benefits of living with less artificially cooled air, such as more outdoor activities and more employee control of comfort in the workplace, will slowly begin to surface. In the meantime, I can tell you that writing book reviews in your underwear is a good way of keeping the thermostat turned up.

  1. Newsletter ‘HomeSense’ from Blair’s Air Conditioning and Heating, Fall 2010. []
  2. Unless referenced, all other statements are taken from or based on this book. []

Gary Gellatly is an activist and writer from the UK. He enjoys beer and indie music. Read other articles by Gary.