How America Became Addicted to Air Conditioning

It was a sun-drenched afternoon, with another autumnal heatwave cooking the concrete of Los Angeles, but Joanne Pilecki hugged her green fleece close as she stepped into a cinema foyer.

“I don’t take the cold too well,” said the 61-year-old, adjusting to the abrupt drop in temperature. “I have a sweater with me all the time.” Without it she would feel like an icicle by the end of The Intern, even though it was supposedly a heartwarming comedy. “I’m always cold. On planes I bring my own blankets.”

Other cinema-goers, in contrast, came precisely because it was cool, said Cerise Cobbs, who was manning the ticket booth at the Third Street Promenade shopping centre in Santa Monica. “Folks who don’t have good air con at home come, especially at weekends — they say they’ve got to get out of the house.”

Too hot, too cold, just right — Americans may differ over where to set the dial but they agree air conditioning is integral to modern life.

It is ubiquitous, whirring in homes, offices, stores, schools, elevators, factories, cars, trains, gyms, stadiums, tunnels, a communion of cool stretching from California to New York.

“It’s made its way into American life,” said Salvatore Basile, author of Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything. “This idea for millennia that God made hot weather so you should put up with it — that attitude has relaxed.”

But with the vertiginous rise of the “cold economy” — and the energy it demands — becoming more and more visible, there is finally a growing awareness of the problem in the US.

New York City recently passed a law that will oblige nearly all shops and restaurants to keep front doors and windows shut while air conditioners are on, a response to the practice of wooing sweaty passers-by with the promise of chilled respite. Innovators are promising more efficient devices in the next decade, including one that makes and stores ice cheaply at night to cool buildings during the day, from a California firm called Ice Energy.

Only now is the U.S. waking up to the environmental cost of such massive energy consumption — and to the chilling prospect that the rest of the world may follow its example. The proportion of homes in Chinese cities with air conditioning rocketed from 8 percent to 70 percent between 1995 and 2004.

U.S. statistics are bracing. A nation with 318 million people accounting for just 4.5 percent 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.

Vehicle air conditioners in the U.S. use 7-10 billion gallons of petrol annually. Each home with an air conditioner emits about two tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air each year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Air conditioners employ the same operating principles as refrigerators: transfer heat from the cool interior, be it a fridge, room or building, to the relative warmth outside.

This can contribute to an urban heat island effect. A study found that AC units in Phoenix, Arizona, heat the night-time air temperature outside by up to 2C which, of course, encourages residents to blast even more air conditioning to compensate. New York’s subway stations bake in summer at more than 48C, partly because air-conditioned trains are pumping out heat.

Freakishly hot weather across the U.S. increases the temptation to ratchet up air conditioning, especially in California, which has endured record heat along with massive wildfires and a drought. During the summer, energy providers often implore people to reduce their use of air conditioners and other devices to avoid crashing the grid.

Silicon Valley is another guzzler. The water used to cool California’s estimated 800 data centers each year could fill approximately 158,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Reducing energy consumption can be tricky, according to Aaron James, a professor of philosophy and ethics at the University of California, Irvine. “People often feel a sense of entitlement about what they have become accustomed to. So even if it wouldn’t be asking much – a small behavioural change in the face of a severe problem – it can make us feel morally defensive.”

Filling a recycling bag that neighbours may see, for instance, can feel more important and virtuous than lowering the AC. “In the U.S. there’s not an established awareness of air conditioning as a climate change problem,” said James, the author of Assholes: A Theory .

Air conditioning, it should be stressed, is an important economic and social technology. It saves lives. An average of 618 people in the US die each year from exposure to excessive natural heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a far cry from a century ago when heat killed thousands. It also cuts absenteeism and raises productivity. In a 1957 survey, 90 percent of U.S. firms named cooled air as the single biggest boost to their productivity.

Nelson Polsby, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who died in 2007, suggested air conditioning also reshaped American politics by enabling Republican pensioners to migrate to southern and western states, paving Ronald Reagan’s way to the White House.

“Air conditioning probably did foster migration in the Sun Belt,” said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. “How many people want to endure Orlando in mid-August without air conditioning? Without it, Disney World would be more like Devil’s Island.”

The technology also influenced the Hollywood blockbuster. In the early 20th century few braved sweltering cinemas in summer. That changed once they installed air conditioning — an innovation advertised with letters dripping with icicles. It remains a selling point to this day. AMC Theatres, the U.S.’s second largest cinema chain, keeps the temperature at 21C in winter and 23C in summer.

Bar Armageddon, the technology is here to to stay, said Basile. “It’s not possible to go back once you’ve been going forward. From a philosophical standpoint I, an air-conditioning junkie, can’t tell someone they can’t have it.”

He feels, however, that the U.S. overuses the technology. “I noticed that cooled spaces in the U.K. were comfortable, but nowhere near as icy-frigid as their American counterparts.”

With billions of people in warm climates wanting “bearable lives”, the race for efficiency is rather urgent, according to Basile. He is optimistic. “We will get more bang for our buck.”


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