Why some people have cooled off of air conditioning

Slate's Daniel Engber discusses the bigger societal implications of air conditioning and why some Americans are against it.

Kai Ryssdal: So you better believe -- what with the heat waves and all the dry spells we've been having -- that air conditioners are working over time this summer. But A/C is often frowned upon. Daniel Engber writes in defense of conditioned air today in Slate. Thanks for being with us.

Daniel Engber: Glad to be here.

Ryssdal: So let me question the premise of this piece, who could possibly be against air conditioning?

Engber: You'd be surprised. I know that most homes in America now have air conditioning, something like 87 percent. But I just find in my daily life that there's a lot of guilt and shame about using the air conditioner. People want to get by for as long as they can without turning it on.

Ryssdal: Now do you find in the winter time trying to go without heat? Does the flip side of this equation work?

Engber: No, the flip side of the equation never works. The very notion is absurd. So there are cafes in my neighborhood where it will be 95 degrees out and they don't have the air conditioning on because why would you succumb to the temptation of wasteful air conditioning?

Ryssdal: The other thing is, though, is that people always say, oh man you've got those chlorofluorocarbons and whatever it is that is in the coolant for the air conditioning and it's destroying the planet.

Engber: Sure. So the big argument against air conditioning now is this idea that when we turn on the air conditioner, when we try to cool off, we are ironically, I suppose, making the planet warmer. We're contributing to global warming both through the guzzling of electricity by the appliance and also by the refrigerant gases that are used.

Ryssdal: But you can only get -- this is a little convoluted -- you can only get so cool. You can only put your feet in a tub of ice and have a fan blow on you and there's a limit to how much that will cool you off. You can get warm in like a zillion different way.

Engber: Right. There's this sense, well maybe one of the reasons: we have this sort of thermal double standard. Part of that comes from this idea that maybe somehow cold is worse than hot -- that people are going to freeze to death before they catch fire. But that's just not the case, I don't think. The data on whether cold snaps or heat waves are more deadly are ambiguous. Certainly both kill lots of people in the United States every year. But for some reason again there's this notion that the rules are different on either end of the thermostat.

Ryssdal: You kind of tease us at the bottom of this pice talking about part two that's going to come out tomorrow, about the deeper societal implications of air conditioning in this country in the 21st century. Give us a preview, would you?

Engber: I think this goes to the question of sort of the politics or air conditioning. This is something that the journalist Dan Cox has written about. He's argued that the invention and spread of air conditioning has really been a boon for the Republican party because it's created this possibility of southward migration to the Sun Belt. It's certainly the case. If you look at the last presidential election, 8 of the 10 hottest states in the country voted for John McCain. It plays out in even policy discussions. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program favors heating over cooling and that's been a source of political debate over the years with the warm weather states arguing that more money should be appropriated to them.

Ryssdal: Daniel Engber. His piece on air conditioning is in Slate today. It's called "Don't Sweat It." Part two comes tomorrow. Daniel, thanks a lot.

Engber: Thank you, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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Mr. Engber is certainly overstating the case when he says "the flip side never works." But the real lesson here is that we need to heat less, not air condition more. I may be an outlier, but I used to live in an old uninsulated farmhouse here in Iowa & would try to get through Nov. w/o turning on the heat. Kept the house at 45 in the winter, no heat in the bedrooms. Now in my late 60's and living in town, I keep winter temps at 55 to 60, way down at night. My house has central air; I've had that on maybe a dozen days in the 26 years I've lived in it. Some of us get it. Just you wait folks - someday our kids will have no choice but to live as I do.

efales, as a former Iowan myself, I agree completely with your methodology. I turned on the a/c during the days most likely to cause my food to go stale and mold to grow. This means a couple weeks during the typical summer at maximum. Likewise, I tried to keep the heat at the minimum temperature during the winter (there is a reason why sweaters were invented).
Now, I am in the central valley of California. Despite many days in the mid-90s and several 100+ degree stretches, I have seen zero need for a/c. The low humidity means cool temperatures at night, which I blow in with fans and then seal inside during the day.
I think the premise of not having a/c being just as dangerous as no heat is silly. Having lived in Iowa, I understand that completely forgoing heat in the winter leads to hypothermia and burst pipes, which are far worse than sweat and uncomfortable sleeping.

I was laughing as I heard this story in my car in Austin, Texas. The outdoor temp registered in my car was 103 during the story. In addition, my home a/c was not working the previous day/night and I "tried" to sleep with the windows open, ceiling fans on and 2 additional floor fans. It actually became a bit cooler around 3:00 a.m. I would invite Mr. Engber to spend a night without A/C in Austin during the month of August for a better perspective on air conditioning.

I spent summers in Austin as a child with no air conditioning. My Texas great-grandparents never had air conditioning. You get used to it. People acclimate. For me, it takes about 3 days. I try to never use heat or air conditioning. It's expensive, bad for the environment, and makes me a wimp.

Shame on you! You say "We're contributing to global warming both through the guzzling of electricity by the appliance and also by the refrigerant gases that are used." The refrigerant gasses, the hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are responsible for the destruction of the ozone layer over the poles resulting in increased UV radiation and resultant skin cancer, but the are NOT greenhouse gasses contributing the global climate change (It is true that recent science seems to indicate the inverse--that climate change is also exacerbating the destruction of the ozone layer, but that is another issue).
If our media does not accurately report the science behind climate change, no wonder the general public is confused.

That's a bit harsh, but you're right to the extent that they got it partly right. CFCs/Freon were mostly banned, out of concern for stratospheric ozone depletion (old ACs and fridges can still contain it, but leakage is probably modest if they're recycled). Much of the accelerated climate change issue is related to fossil CO2 buildup, with a lesser role played by refrigerants (which can be strong infrared absorbers). INCLUDING the newer ones if they escape: http://cdiac.ornl.gov/pns/current_ghg.html .
The latest HFO refrigerant, though, has dramatically lower GWP.

Still, it's fossil-fueled energy use that's key, whether home, business, or transportation. If most people were more moderate in their general consumption, a bit of air conditioning might not be as concerning. Insulate and update where you can, plant trees for shade, then set the thermostat to the limits of your comfort. For me, that's 80 degrees under typical humidity here, and it's often enough to open the windows and run an exhaust fan in the evening. And while we're at it, it doesn't hurt to check the water heater isn't too hot, etc.:

I laughed hearing this report. My husband and I regularly play "how long can we wait before we turn on the furnace?" in the fall/winter!

There is something primal about gathering around a fire with others....
somehow, it's just not the same, gathering around a big block of ice.

I know one reason we feel guilty about running the air conditioning. Many of us grew up without it (suffering all summer long), so it seems like a luxury we don't really need. I try to use mine wisely, but I sure enjoy sleeping well at night! Oh, and it also costs money to run it, so there's an economic benefit to being virtuous as well.


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