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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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