x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Life in a cold climate: the impact and the perils of air conditioning

Non-fiction Examining the socioeconomic impact of air ­conditioning, Stan Cox also outlines ways in which to lessen our ­dependence upon this most resource-hungry of ­technologies.


Examining the socioeconomic impact of air ­conditioning, Stan Cox also outlines ways in which to lessen our ­dependence upon this most resource-hungry of ­technologies, writes Bradford Plumer Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (And Finding New Ways To Get Through The Summer) Stan Cox New Press Dh92

As anyone who has lived through a hot summer - particularly one as blistering as those in the Gulf - will attest, it's no fun. People become sluggish and irritable. It becomes hard to work, hard to concentrate - hard to do anything. There are even studies suggesting that excess heat can cripple a country. In 2008, three economists, led by Benjamin Jones from Chicago's Northwestern University, found that poor countries experience a drop in economic growth during hotter-than-average years. It is not just that drought causes crops to die. Industrial output declines and political unrest becomes more likely. What is odd is that this effect is limited to poor countries - wealthy economies seem to be immune from the heat.

Why? One possible explanation is that, over the past century, the industrialised West has developed a technology to shield itself from stifling summer temperatures: air conditioning. Today, most Americans barely have to interact with their exterior climate. They can wake up in their thermostat-controlled house, hop in their cars and turn on the A/C, then drive to an office where the indoor air is cool. As Jones and his colleagues found, this has a huge socioeconomic effect.

Strangely enough, the impact of this world-changing technology has only too rarely been explored by scholars. Yet, as Stan Cox details in his excellent new book, Losing Our Cool, air conditioning has been a major force in shaping western society. It has facilitated the invention of penicillin and remade political maps. Now, however, as A/C becomes more and more popular across the globe, the colossal demands it imposes on energy resources threaten to destroy the very world they helped to shape.

After the discovery in 1928 of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), compounds that were widely used as coolants in air-conditioning systems (and were later found to be responsible for ozone depletion), the technology underwent a popularity boom in the United States. Everyone wanted it; every new house had to have it. The government even allowed homeowners to write off A/C installation on public-health grounds. Meanwhile, the rising sales created a self-perpetuating market. In southern Europe, the heat blasted out by homes with air-conditioners can raise the temperatures of nearby streets to the degree that neighbours are forced to install their own units. Now consumers in China, India, and other world economies are joining in. In Dubai, the Palazzo Versace hotel will include an air-conditioned beach.

A/C has already reshaped the West in many ways. In the US, air-conditioning has allowed people to move to once-hostile climes in the South and south-west - places whose ecosystems and water supplies are now heaving under the weight of a growing population. Given that these states tend to be the most conservative, A/C-driven migration has arguably played a big role in the rise of the Republican party over the past 30 years. In Singapore, meanwhile, officials claim that the country could never have become a vital business hub without air conditioning - in its absence, two scholars concluded, "people simply could not function effectively".

Tallying up the costs and benefits of air conditioning is remarkably difficult. On the one hand, economies in hot regions can now function year round. In the United States, prior to the invention of A/C, shops would simply close down during the hot summer months. On the other hand, Cox argues, air-conditioned societies lose something for their perennial comfort: people don't take breaks for the summer; they do less milling together outside in public spaces on hot days; there are fewer trips to the beach, less communal porch-sitting. (Granted, this trend is hard to quantify, and may not be true of everywhere.)

In trying to tally up the pros and cons, Cox ploughs through rich scholarly debates about how air conditioning has affected our lives. Corporate HR offices have long obsessed over whether turning down the thermostat can improve worker productivity. (There seems to be no consensus on this question.) Other researchers have looked at the effects on public health. Air conditioning can save people from death during heatwaves, and has also prevented the spread of certain diseases (the West Nile virus, for example, in the US). Conversely, it has also created buildings where bacteria and mould can spread. Some experts even wonder if the proliferation of A/C has helped spur rising obesity levels. It's not just that kids are now more likely to stay inside on hot days; the bodily functions triggered by variations in temperature - sweating when it's balmy, shivering when it's chilly - also help to keep us lean and healthy.

Is all this lamentable? Strictly speaking, there's nothing new about man-made temperature control. Humans have spent thousands of years figuring out how to survive in hostile environments, from Saudi Arabia to Siberia. Indeed, clothing and homes were created to shield us from the elements, hot or cold. Even so, there does seem to be something slightly unnatural about the air-conditioning explosion. Humans beings have evolved to deal with a range of temperatures, and it wouldn't be surprising to see adverse side effects from living in a permanently homogenous climate.

There is also a deeper problem with our desire to micromanage our environment. It may be unsustainable. The amount of energy consumed by US homes for air conditioning has doubled in the past 12 years (it now accounts for 20 per cent of electricity use). While India and China are only beginning to latch onto the technology, already the growth is starting: In Mumbai, 40 per cent of the city's electricity demand is attributed to the relative handful of air-conditioned homes. If these countries continue to burning coal to satisfy demand for indoor cooling the result will be more carbon-dioxide in the air, more global warming, and that, in turn, will spur even more airconditioning. It's a vicious cycle in the making.

Avoiding catastrophe will be difficult. In Cox's view, people will continue to want A/C, especially in developing countries that, largely, happen to be hot and where more people can now afford the technology. As a result, the gains from ever-more-efficient technology will be swamped by growing demand. In the United States, air conditioners have become much more efficient, but now homeowners just invest the savings into ever-bigger homes requiring even more cooling power.

Cox's dour perspective seems half-right, though he is probably much too pessimistic on the ability of humanity to curb its energy use and avoid catastrophic climate change - he cites a single study arguing that the global economy will have to shrink in real terms to reduce its emissions to safe levels, a minority view among economists. But he is right that there is not likely to be an easy technological fix for our A/C addiction.

This means that countries may have to start looking at methods to supplant or downsize the honking central-air units so beloved of the suburban US. In countries like Japan and South Korea, for instance, homeowners find it wasteful to cool a whole vacant house all at once, preferring to focus on individual rooms where people actually are. Likewise, better insulation and ventilation can reduce the need for A/C, as can plant-covered roofs that cool buildings naturally. There also exist promising alternatives, including ground-source heat pumps, which channel hot air in a house down into the ground during the summer (or pump up warmth from the soil during the winter).

Ultimately, though, we may have to consider a change in human behaviour - and on this point, Losing Our Cool is surprisingly restrained. In the face of unsustainable energy trends, it is quite possible that we will have to learn to rely less on artificial temperature control. Apparently, at least according to early anecdotal evidence, this works. In Japan, for example, the government has pressured businesses to keep thermostats at a toasty 27°C during the summer. After some initial resistance, businessmen took off their suit jackets and adjusted fine.

There may also be an upside. At one point, Cox outlines the pleasure of eschewing the hum of A/C, reacquainting oneself with "thermal variation", learning to appreciate cool June breezes and the drop in temperatures that accompany a summer thunderstorm. While that message may never catch on, where Cox succeeds is in clearly defining the benefits and costs of mankind's rush to refrigerate - and that's a start. Bradford Plumer, a regular contributor to The Review, is an assistant editor at The New Republic.

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