Air Conditioning Will Not Save Us
YouIt keeps on happening. Every summer, unprecedented heat surges through cities across the United States—in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho; in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio; and in Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey. Texas was hit by a heat wave last week that saw temperatures rise to the 100s over several days. Just when people need electricity most, it fails. Every year in America, many people die of heat-related diseases. Many more suffer heat stress and end up in hospital. U.S. leaders have been slow to respond to heat-related emergency situations, compared to other weather-related catastrophes. Many places are still unprepared. What can we do to make cities more resilient?
This urban heat crisis doesn’t just affect North America. The death toll from extreme heat is higher than that of any other climate catastrophe on Earth, such as floods and hurricanes. In the U.K., temperatures are reaching 104ºF for the first time in recorded history, and the heat is stoking wildfires across Europe. In India, cities inhabited for centuries are now unlivable with highs of 123ºF. The problem is exacerbated by climate change. This has been primarily due to the increase in carbon emissions from industrialized countries. Heat waves are getting hotter, they’re happening more often, and they’re lasting longer. Currently, 2.2 billion people—that’s 30% of the world’s population—now experience life-threatening heat during at least 20 days of the year, and scientists predict that heat could threaten as many as 66% of human lives by the end of the century. Unlike more cinematic violence, heat is invisible, even as it’s more immediate and widespread. This makes the situation even more perilous. Only a drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels can slow down this trend.
Americans assume that air conditioning is the solution. United States consumes more energy to cool than any other country. In 2016, 328 million Americans—that’s less than 5% of the world’s population—guzzled more energy for cooling than the 4.4 billion people living in all of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia, with the exception of China. The United States and China account for more than half the global cooling-related emission. combined.) The U.S. consumes almost the same amount of energy to cool as the entire population of Africa, which is 1.2 billion. Worldwide, demand for cooling is rising fast, and it’s still growing in the U.S., where it’s already ubiquitous. Today 88% of American homes have some sort of cooling system, compared with 4% in Europe. Americans cool down even more in summer heat.
The extreme heat crisis would seem to have been solved in the nation with the highest air conditioning. Although it may seem like a simple solution to summer suffering, it is not a sustainable solution. In some cases, air conditioning might even exacerbate our crisis—and it’s clear that there are better, community-wide solutions we should be pursuing instead.
The air conditioner’s limits were tested during the New York City heat wave 2019.It was obvious that this could be used as an all-purpose solution for urban heat emergencies. On a Sunday in July, at the start of a three-day blaze that pushed the heat index to 113ºF, neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens lost electricity. Because the system handled a record-breaking load of energy—most of it to power room air conditioners—several sections of the southeast Brooklyn grid failed. In response, Con Ed, the investor-owned monopoly corporation that acts as the city’s public utility, intentionally cut power to an additional 33,000 residents in order “to prevent any further outages and also to protect the integrity of the energy system.” More than 50,000 residents—including seniors in several large care facilities, as well as infants—struggled without power for more than twenty-four hours. Not surprisingly, the neighborhoods of Canarsie (59%) are mostly Black and Flatlands (8%) are predominantly working-class.
On Saturday, July 20th, 2019, a Consolidated Edison Inc. van is parked in the Bronx Borough of New York.
David ‘Dee’ Delgado—Bloomberg/Getty Images
It is destabilizing logic. This is not a rare or exclusive problem in New York. It’s happening in cities around the country. Con Ed chose to target the predominantly poor Black and brown neighborhood of Brooklyn in the southeastern part of the city as a buffer area for Brooklyn’s rest and the whole of Brooklyn. “Vital equipment” and “the integrity of the energy system” as a whole—that is, in the whiter, wealthier, more commercial districts—were privileged above the communities of Canarsie and Flatlands.
Heat waves touch almost every part of the planet’s surface, but cities generate a particular problem. In the U.S., extreme heat in cities—where more than 80% of Americans now live—kills an estimated 1,300 people a year. Tall, dense buildings; lack of leafy trees; waste heat from cars and buildings (including air conditioners); and heat-absorbing materials like asphalt and roofing all combine to create “urban heat islands.” On scorching afternoons, some urban neighborhoods can reach temperatures 15ºF hotter than outside the city. This could make the difference between comfort and death.
Urban heat islands, like any other weather-related catastrophe, affect people in different ways. Pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, high bloodpressure, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses make urban heat islands particularly dangerous. People who are outside workers, homeless people and others without shade or access to water like pool owners; those who live alone, alcoholics and those lacking secure healthcare access are all at risk.
Learn More: The Effects of Extreme Heat on the Human Body
Urban heat islands are another way to put it. neighborhoods unevenly. The NYC “Environment & Health Data Portal” notes that “the risk of illness or death related to heat waves is higher in communities with higher surface temperatures and less green space, and poor communities of color that have experienced historical racism and segregation.” In fact, communities that have historically experienced racism and segregation (e.g., redlining) are hotter becauseThis is the history. Harlem’s lack of funding decades ago meant that there was less shade, making it a more hot neighborhood today than one located just south. In NYC, Black residents make up only 22% of the population, but they account for about 50% of the city’s heat fatalities. A remarkable indicator of the density of vegetation is the median neighborhood income in cities all over America.
Air conditioning divides us by race and class—especially during inflation. Air conditioning can be more effective in hot neighborhoods with low incomes. Energy conservationIt costs more to heat homes in these communities, compared to those living in wealthy neighborhoods. A study has shown that Blacks spend significantly more energy than their white counterparts. This is despite the fact that they tend to be 50% less likely to sacrifice basic needs and 40% more inclined to set their homes at an unhealthy temperature so they can pay higher energy bills. Even though Black residents have access to equal amounts of energy, their infrastructure still continues to be more burdensome than that for whites.
We must ensure everyone is safe during a heatwave by providing a means to cool down. For those who can, this means running individual AC units in residential spaces—at least, for now. But this response to heat emergencies doesn’t look like an emergency response at all. It doesn’t work if the energy grid goes down. The survival of the city is left up to the consumer, making it more vulnerable to the heat.
An apartment building was hit with heat on Tuesday July 19, 2022.
Sergio Flores—Bloomberg/Getty Images
How about distributing ACs free of charge to those who are in greatest need? New York, for example, has programs to subsidize the cost of air conditioners. These programs include the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), which can prove difficult or time-consuming to locate and enroll in. Activist groups like Harlem’s WE ACT work hard to connect residents to these programs and keep them cool, but in other cities, air conditioning is rarely subsidized for those who need it most. These programs can only provide temporary relief. A country where basic and life-sustaining healthcare is not a fundamental human right makes subsidized air conditioning seem unlikely, if it’s possible, to provide comfort for the poor.
Our fixation with air conditioning is so intense that the only solution most of us can think to the air conditioning crisis is…more air conditioning. The ultimate irony is that global warming can be caused by air conditioning. Refrigerants used in AC systems are still powerful greenhouse gasses (GHGs) that trap heat thousands of folds better than carbon dioxide. They account for approximately 3% of U.S. emission. Although international agreements have recently phasing out these chemicals, it is not certain that they will be eliminated. CFCs were banned from refrigeration decades ago. But, in 2019, CFCs have been briefly manufactured by factories in eastern Asia. The agreement reduced the cost. This ban, which is without incentives to properly destroy chemicals responsibly, encourages the production of chemical smuggling rings well beyond its expiration date.
Air conditioning heats our planet in two ways. U.S. residents use about 17% of their annual electricity on air conditioning, although yearly averages hide geographic particularities and the fact that the most intense—or sometimes only—cooling happens during summer. Air conditioning can account for up to 70% of peak electricity consumption on the hottest days. The plus side is that AC uses almost all electricity. This means it can be run using renewable energy. Only 19% of the electricity consumed in America comes from renewables at this time. The majority of electricity comes from fossil fuels. This results in significant greenhouse gas emissions.
Also, the air conditioner makes it harder to cool down.
But one day we’ll power our homes with renewable energy, right? It’s possible, but the turn toward a renewable energy future is not so simple. It will take several decades to transform the country’s entire infrastructure. Throughout this time, both the oil-and-gas lobby and a whole political party are resisting any step in the transformation. Renewable energy does not come without material limitations or restrictions. Solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles need land as well as steel and conflict minerals like cobalt and lithium, which are reshaping places like Bolivia and the Democratic Republic of Congo in which they’re mined. The International Institute for Sustainable Development has published detailed reports linking the U.S. demand for renewable energy infrastructure with increased “fragility and corruption” in regimes across the world. If saving and improving human lives is what we’re after with renewable energy—and it should be—we need to make sure that American lives are not improved at the expense of the poor elsewhere.
The international cooling market is expected to double in the coming 30 years. As our renewable energy infrastructure expands, so does demand. It’s unclear right now whether future demand will outstrip new renewable infrastructure to meet that demand. One report claims that the present global capacity for solar is only enough to power about half of the current demand for cooling—never mind what we need for transport and industry. And none of this addresses whether we actually need the enormously high energy capacity that Americans expect—not just for survival but for comfort, too.
Continue reading: Weather Reports Connect Hot Days to Climate Change
Improvements in energy-efficiency can lower demand. An AC system that uses less electricity can provide as much cooling power. An infrastructure that is more efficient can take energy directly from the source. About 66% of the electrical energy that is generated today goes to waste before it reaches its users. It’s worth remembering, however, that the promise of energy-efficiency is often exaggerated and theoretical. Real user behavior is also important in order to realize energy efficiency gains (e.g. leaving the AC running for hours in an unoccupied space).
We have the bad habit in this country of choosing short-term, temporary tech solutions over long-lasting, structural changes. Although the U.S. is able to slow down global warming, its federal counterpart, China, has failed to do so in a way that stabilizes the climate. The heat crisis in the United States is proving that city leaders must fight for radical change, not just new AC units. A recent Supreme Court ruling is a reminder. West Virginia vs. EPA, which limits the federal government’s ability to regulate energy emissions, not to mention Americans’ knee-jerk reaction to regulation anyway, we need a different approach than austerity, one that focuses not on restrictions but on alternative InvestingTo our cities. To save lives we can’t keep asking for less. We need to reinvest heavily in the communities and in public health.
Pallets of water bottles were emptied during the heatwave in Bixby (OK), USA on Tuesday July 19, 2022.
September Dawn Bottoms—Bloomberg/Getty Images
The first is that we can give back energy systems to the people who need them.Today, the majority of Americans get their energy from private, investor-owned utilities companies. These are corporations which act as public utilities. These companies’ structure puts profit ahead of people. A growing number of energy co-operatives are making a difference in the management and control of energy.
We must also plant trees to close the urban green space access gap.Two ways trees cool down neighborhoods are that they shade asphalt and heat-absorbing concrete, as well as evaporating water from the ground. This cools the surrounding air much like an air conditioner. Recent research in 97 cities revealed that urban trees prevent about 1200 deaths per year and more than 100,000 visits to the hospital. Trees are not just a life saver, but they also enhance lives. Public green space and tree access can help improve physical and mental health. They bring people together.
We must also legislate to make better design of buildings.Cities must pass legislation that allows for heat-resistant materials to be used in all types of buildings, including single-family houses and skyscrapers. Designers may be required to include natural and shade ventilation in their designs, as this can help reduce energy consumption. As architectural historian Gail Cooper has written extensively, we’re in the habit of cooling spaces, not people. It is also less expensive. A cross-breeze doesn’t change the temperature in a building, but it can make all the difference between occupant comfort and discomfort, between feeling the summer season and calling an ambulance. Many of us are no longer accustomed to cross-breezes in our homes, though we once were in this country, and in the vast majority of work and commercial spaces, air conditioning has come to signal “unprofessional” or “lower class.” Getting more comfortable with natural ventilation and slightly higher indoor temperatures is a cultural shift we need to make.
Most buildings—homes and offices alike—are so hermetically sealed that they Please enterIt cools them down by supplying air conditioning. It is completely unnecessary in any but extreme situations. (Phoenix, for example, seems unlivable without air conditioning, but that’s an extreme case.) This outdated approach can cause all sorts of problems, including workplace discomfort and sick building syndrome. Today the world’s leading architects are incorporating passive cooling strategies into their designs, which use what we know from nature to cool indoor spaces with little or no mechanical cooling. As Cooper notes, we’re designing for the extremes, even though most days don’t require air conditioning. This escalates demand for cooling when it’s not necessary.
We must also increase public access to cooling spaces such as libraries and cooling centres.Eric Klinenberg studied libraries as a key component of social infrastructure. Palaces of the People. They are public spaces that keep people cool. As far as cooling centers go, we don’t have enough and the ones we do close in the early evening, when indoor temperatures are hottest, due to a delay in the release of building heat. Increased accessibility to water features such as pools or beaches could also help save lives.
Finally, heat emergencies such as emergencies must be addressed by cities.Con Ed sends a text message to New Yorkers, encouraging them to conserve energy. This assumes a certain selflessness that’s unwarranted. The city’s leaders must take over the reigns. More practical, specific cooling tips from the city; more expansive educational outreach about how to mitigate the worst effects of heat-related illness; how to care for neighbors who live alone; and the ability to access emergency funds for heat—whether at the local, state, or federal level—could go a long way. It is possible to survive a heatwave regardless of your individual temperament or preference. It requires a set of skills that anyone can learn and practice, if they’re given the opportunity: cold showers, well-placed fans that encourage vigorous cross-breezes, opening windows at strategic places in an apartment or house, drawing curtains or shades when direct sunlight hits windows, avoiding alcohol and hydrating, unplugging necessary appliances that may generate heat, learning to distinguish between heat discomfort and danger, connecting with isolated neighbors, sleeping with wet socks pointed at a fan, and many more.
If necessary, air-conditioning should be used to provide survival assistance in the most extreme situations. The reality, however is that AC is still being used in extreme circumstances by the least vulnerable people. An emergency response that is solely focused on the consumer will be utterly undemocratic. It also ignores the greater investments cities can make in public health. These other actions can be taken immediately by urban governments to improve their cities. While the results will not be immediate, they will stabilise us better than the vicious circle of increasing conditioning in a warmer world.
It is not the responsibility of citizens to purchase ACs, or to switch them on. The responsibility rests on government leaders—the mayors, the city assemblies, and the urban designers that make decisions about green space, energy infrastructure, and building design. The lives of the most vulnerable citizens will be affected by the heatwaves.
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