“Air-conditioning demystifies nature’s miracles, and contributes to a culture characterized by disconnection and overconsumption.”
– Neri Oxman (MIT Media Lab), quoted here
“‘I’d rather sweat and stink and drink ice water.'”
– Mark Feeney (Boston Globe), quoted here
My recent blog at the Institute for Energy Research (IER) website documented an ongoing series at the New York Times aimed at getting one and all to lower their carbon footprint.
Grill vegetables, not meat. Use gas, not charcoal or wood. Watch how you wash your car and boil your water. Drink your coffee cold. Avoid dairy. Forgo the flowers. To which I said:
In a free society, personal choices are made for reasons of health, safety, convenience, quality, and affordability. Time is as important as dollars. Quality is valued over lesser substitutes. Self-sacrifice for some other person’s notion of good is not very motivating.
Warning: the eco-snoops are at the door. To which we need to respond: leave us alone. Grown-up’s are not be bothered about de minimis effects, regarding the gas of life, the green greenhouse gas, what Matt Ridley recently celebrated as the ecological tonic for a better, more productive world.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is not a pollutant but the opposite. “Amid all the talk of an imminent planetary catastrophe caused by emissions of carbon dioxide,” Ridley states,
another fact is often ignored: global greening is happening faster than climate change. The amount of vegetation growing on the earth has been increasing every year for at least 30 years. The evidence comes from the growth rate of plants and from satellite data.
An Air-Conditioned World
No sooner did I finish my Grilling with Gusto piece than the New York Times published Do Americans Need Air-Conditioning? (July 3, 2019). “Nearly 90 percent of American households now have some form of air-conditioning, more than any other country in the world except Japan,”
Penelope Green notes. Yet, we find ourselves in a dilemma of a warming world requiring more air conditioning, itself increasing energy/CO2 use.
“Comfort cooling represents one of the largest end-use risk to our climate,” states a recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institute. The authors of Solving the Global Cooling Challenge explain:
A warming planet, rapid urbanization, growing population, and rising incomes are driving up the global demand for air conditioning, and under a business-as-usual growth trajectory, the number of room air conditioner (RAC) units in service is estimated to increase from 1.2 billion units today to 4.5 billion units by 2050. Much of this growth comes from emerging economies, which will see a five-times (5X) increase in the number of RACs between now and 2050.
The Amory Lovins school of romantics envisions breakthrough technologies (“environmentally frugal innovation“) to overcome the cycle, forgetting that improvements in energy efficiency will increase the demand for AC, indoors for the developing world and outdoors for the developed world.
Comfort, affordable comfort, comes first. “On an overheated planet, air-conditioning becomes more and more desirable, solving in the short term the problem it helped create,” Green admits.
It’s not easy being green.
A/C on Trial
To Ms. Green, conditioned air, which no one supposes to be an afterthought among the comfortable, represents a big conflict.
It is another paradox that even as architects and engineers are making ever more efficient buildings to meet energy standards set by cities like New York … we are still freezing in our offices and fighting with our partners over whether to turn on the Friedrich.
The author then tries to question the utility and fairness of it all. There is a suggestion that A/C makes us less human. Sexism comes into play with men liking cooler air in the workplace–and getting their preference over women.
A strange analogy is made that A/C is like being on a diet and too much “dieting” is bad. An “computational designer and architect in charge of the Mediated Matter Group” at MIT is quoted: “Air-conditioning demystifies nature’s miracles, and contributes to a culture characterized by disconnection and overconsumption.”
A vegetarian is quoted about how he has come to eschew conditioned air (even to the point of being sweaty and smelly, quoted above).
Do you want to condition your air? Your skin maybe, or your hair. I’m a vegetarian, but I didn’t become one for any specific reason. It just happened…. Same with AC: If you modify your actions, it’s good for the planet, it’s good for everyone. Also, I’m a lapsed Catholic and I’m Irish so I need a certain degree of self-imposed suffering in my life and I guess this qualifies.
Green’s article ends:
People in countries with lower G.D.P.s, said David Lehrer, the communications director and a researcher [at the University of California Berkeley], are more comfortable with a wider range of temperatures. It appears that first world discomfort is a learned behavior.
Failing on the supply side (fossil fuels enjoy an 85 percent global market share after 30 years of climate debate), the eco-planners are mining the demand side. Their complaints hit right at the practices and norms that make life extra nice. But challenging basic creature comforts is surely a big loser outside of a fringe.
Meanwhile, for our sake and the sake of others, be comfortable and stay fresh. The energy market has plenty of spare capacity for all of your (affordable) wants, and the climate will not notice and is not in peril anyway.