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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

Air Conditioning: Cooling People While Heating the World

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: Keith Goetzman, environment, climate change, global warming, air conditioning, energy, design, green living, whole-house fans, ceiling fans, Losing Our Cool,

Air conditioners

It’s the season of air conditioning in the Northern Hemisphere, which means spiking energy demands. Environmental writer Stan Cox breaks down just what this means in his book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer), which came out in spring from The New Press.

German researchers, he reports, have projected that because of global warming and rising populations, cooling demand will rise by 65 to 72 percent in the next four decades. Writes Cox:

Even though the majority of people now living in the world’s hottest climates cannot afford air-conditioning now and probably still won’t have access to it in 2050, millions of homes, offices, other buildings, and vehicles on every continent will be newly air-conditioned or be reinforced with beefed-up cooling systems; that will add to energy demand and put greater stress on global efforts to cultivate sources of energy that will not further worsen global warming.

In this arena, the United States is the undisputed champion. Already, air-conditioning is approaching 20 percent of year-round electricity consumption by American homes, the highest percentage in our history. In the commercial sector, it uses 13 percent. Air-conditioning by homes, businesses, and public buildings together was consuming a total of 484 billion kilowatt-hours per year by 2007. Compare this to 1955, when I was born into Georgia’s late August heat. That year, the nation consumed a total of 497 billion kilowatt-hours for all uses, not just air-conditioning. We use as much electricity for air-conditioning now as is consumed by all 930 million residents of the continent of Africa.

So what are we supposed to do, shut off our units and sweat it out? Cox covers the myriad ways that policy, design, and architecture can help create a less AC-addicted society, but also suggests that we might need to readjust some of our most treasured notions of comfort:

Without the extremes, enjoyment of moderate conditions declines. After I have worked outdoors through a broiling-hot day, I find that walking into a supercooled office or grocery store is satisfying in the extreme—at first. Yet what I look forward to most is that moment at seven or nine or ten at night when, as I’m sitting on a porch or near a window, I feel that first slightly cool breeze come through. It can make all the preceding hours in the heat worthwhile. That, I realize, may make me seem a little daft, but the world provides a delicious spread of thermal variations from which to choose … .

Anyone looking to cool their home sans AC should check out the articles and blog posts on whole-house fans and ceiling fans by our sister publication, Mother Earth News. And over at our other sibling, Natural Home, editor Robyn Griggs Lawrence has just written about a superefficient new air conditioner design that’s still five years from market but offers hope that on this subject cooler heads may yet prevail.

Sources: Losing Our Cool, Mother Earth News, Natural Home

Image by ToddMorris, licensed under Creative Commons.