It's been a delightfully cool summer here in Germany, but on those rare hot days, I've switched on my air-conditioner and enjoyed a bit of guilt-free refreshment. Yes, guilt-free. Over at Slate, Daniel Engber explains why:
The case against cooling, like certain other pillars of hipster sanctimony, stands on a foundation of half-formed ideas and intuitions. Opponents cite a mishmash of concerns that begin with global warming and extend to worries over personal health, moral laxity, and some ambiguous notion of what it means to live in harmony with the natural world. And running through them all is the strange and puritanical politics of human comfort.
It's true, there is something twisted in the way we warm the planet when we try to cool it. This summer could end up the hottest in 60 years, and all our hiding out indoors will have made the problem worse. Stan Cox, whose 2010 book, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World, makes this argument with blistering intensity, points out in the Times that the cooling of buildings and vehicles accounts for the release of 500 million tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent every year. But it's easy to get distracted by the giant numbers. Yes, A/C units have grown in popularity, but they are not more of a threat to the environment than heaters; in fact, they may be the lesser sin. Analyses of home-energy use reveal that we use more energy to heat our homes (41.7 million BTUs per year, on average, at a cost of $631) than to cool them (7.8 million BTUs, at $276). That’s true even though millions of people have moved into the hot and humid metropolises of the Sun Belt since the 1970s. In fact, as Cox himself points out, that southward migration produced a net decline in energy use for climate control, since all the extra demand for electricity—in the frigid shopping centers of Houston, Phoenix, and elsewhere—has been more than offset by a reduced need for oil- and gas-based home heating. As of a few years ago, homeowners in cold states like Minnesota were putting out 20 to 25 percent more carbon dioxide through the use of their heaters than were the A/C-happy folks in Florida. And while it's true that the HFC refrigerants now used in home appliances are themselves a source of global warming, these will soon be phased out by manufacturers. Even now, they amount to just one-fourth of the total greenhouse emissions associated with air conditioning.
"All right," says our member of brrr-geoisie as he sips his icy lemonade. "Heating may contribute as much or more to climate change than cooling, but that's because heating is more important. When it's hot, you just open your window, turn on a fan, or take off your clothes. When it's cold, what can you do?" If you take it as a given that it's fine and dandy to sweat out a summer day in your underwear but absurd to huddle up at home in a fur-lined parka, then you've already decided the question. But what if the reverse were true? Our capacity to endure the heat has an upper limit, and one that isn't very high. Even in a northern city like New York or Chicago (where 739 people died in a weeklong heat wave in 1995), the summer weather can be so extreme that an electric fan loses its benefit. (At some point, it's just blowing hot air around.) After you've stripped naked and dipped your feet in ice water, there aren't many other options. Winter chill, on the other hand, leaves more room for maneuvering: If it's too cold, you can always don another sweater, drape another blanket, or huddle with a friend.