This article was originally published on Common Edge.
This summer the federal government released an astonishing statistic: 87% of American homes are now equipped with air conditioning. Since the world is getting undeniably warmer, I suppose this isn’t all that surprising, but keep in mind that robust number of mechanically cooled homes include residences in some fairly temperate climates. So my question is a simple one: When did air conditioning in the U.S. became a requirement, rather than an add-on?
All of this churning air would be fine, I guess, if we weren’t killing ourselves by releasing megatons of carbon into our already warming atmosphere. We’re told that we have about 11 years to rein in emissions before the world will be irreversibly damaged. (Some scientists are warning that it’s already too late.) Despite this, the electrical draw for air conditioning in the developing world is expected to triple in the next 11 years.
And we can’t even begin to point the finger at them, because they’re merely emulating us. According to a 2015 article in the The Guardian, the U.S. remains the world leader in a rather dubious distinction: “A nation with 318 million people accounting for just 4.5% of world population consumes more energy for air conditioning than the rest of the world combined. It uses more electricity for cooling than Africa, population 1.1 billion, uses for everything.”
Over 60% of electricity in the U.S. is generated with fossil fuels, which produce the carbon that heats the climate that makes us want air conditioning that, in turn, makes the planet even hotter. It is a vicious cycle of existential proportions. And yet we somehow feel that we’re entitled to comfort, regardless of the consequences. I have designed about 500 buildings with air conditioning, but my family has lived in two buildings across 35 years that have no AC of any kind. We use shade, wind, exposure and ventilation to make it unnecessary (although, truth be told, we might have missed for a week or two each year).
My clients hire me because I think of these pre-emptive measures that allow buildings to use less energy. But almost all of them want the option of central air. We want to have our low-fat cake and eat the steak, too. It’s about control and choice, even if is not always the right thing to do.
The urge to control our destiny has become political. In the era of climate change and the Green New Deal, right-wing pundits now use the word “scold” as a noun applied to politicians who want to control consumer culture: No Meat! No Cars! Don’t Travel on Planes! Don’t Emit Carbon!
The Green New Deal’s goals are based on an essential outcome: survival. But in our personal lives we still want AC, even though more of us are moving to cities, abandoning cars, eating less meat, recycling, thinking about the carbon released by every single thing we consume.
Most of us in the U.S. do not require air conditioning in our houses, except as “quality of life” enhancements. It’s like a good steak or jetting to Europe. But these lifestyle choices are steeped in a heavy dose of magical thinking, the blind-but-hopeful belief that we will somehow sort it all out before the evitable day of reckoning. We need to drive and we still fly in airplanes, but, honestly, using fossil fuels to cool our homes is about as necessary as eating meat. We forget that being hotter than is comfortable will not kill the vast majority of people in most locations. But AC is now expected everywhere.
Of course computers need to be kept cool. Large groups in big spaces need to function in hot, humid conditions. The elderly and the fragile sustain life by avoiding extreme heat. But air conditioning is only three generations old, and our bodies are rapidly changing their internal thermostats to expect it. But in our homes, with fans, shades, and windows that catch breezes and give them places to go, why are mechanics now a new requirement?
Just as cars once had a clutch and manual transmission, automatic transmission is now the operating system for most cars. Soon all cars will have air conditioning. Our homes are following suit. Even with half the country in temperate climate zones, homeowners spend 12% of their electrical budget on AC. Shane Cashman wrote a piece in The Atlantic a couple of years ago entitled “The Moral History of Air Conditioning.” The season is passing, but while the memory is fresh, think of his words: “As summer proceeds, listen to the chorus of machines humming in the windows, outside the houses, atop the office buildings. They offer a reminder that humanity’s ingenuity can come at a cost. Maybe our forebears weren’t entirely wrong to see peril in the act of cooling the air.”
Life is about what we value and how we live our values. Do we value air conditioning enough to accept its real cost?