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Air Conditioning: Harmful?

July 31st, 2016
cooling, housing, heating

Air conditioning is wrongfully maligned. People who make do without AC while living in parts of the country where it only rarely gets above 90F like to write and share pieces like this one:

Air conditioning has become a necessity but not a solution. It's like an ice bath for a patient suffering an extreme fever, treating the symptom while leaving untouched the underlying cause—in this case, the one-two punch of climate change and the distorted physical and social structure of our cities. And by making our world temporarily cooler, air conditioning is making it permanently hotter, thanks to the increases in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, vehicle fuel consumption and refrigerant production that keep the cool air flowing.

As someone who has never lived with AC and is excited about whole house fans, it's easy for me to read things like this and feel virtuously smug. I'm so much better than those selfish people who keep themselves cool at the expense of the planet, go me! But my carbon footprint isn't actually lower than someone's in Orlando, because of heating. Heating emits less CO2 per degree than cooling, but in places where people live it typically requires many fewer degrees of cooling to get into the comfortable range.

There's a large ongoing migration from cold places to warm ones, facilitated by air conditioning, mostly in the form of having the vast majority of new housing construction being in the warm parts of the country. This is very beneficial from a climate perspective, and an anti-AC attitude, where AC is a luxury but heating is an unavoidable necessity, isn't helpful.

(It's very common for people to complain about one side of a problem without recognizing that it is actually better on balance. Like lots of people moving to cities and increasing the strain on the area resources, but ignoring that it would be less efficient to provide for these people if they instead lived farther out—see the SF Sierra Club. This is part of a general pattern of news that finds the negative in everything.)

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