Down with Air-Conditioning?

| Thu Jun. 29, 2006 4:47 PM EDT

Over at Alternet, Stan Cox has an interesting two-part article about air conditioning, and how its rise has transformed the United States. Granted, his section on how A/C has helped make the country more conservative—by allowing more and more people to move to those sprawling, Bush-voting, water-guzzling Sun Belt regions—seems a bit overstated. He never really explains why hotter regions are so conservative (because they have more senior citizens living in retirement communities?). Anyway, I'm more interested in these assorted statistics:

The United States devotes 18 percent of its electricity consumption just to air-condition buildings. That's more than four times as much electricity per capita as India uses per capita for all purposes combined. ...

About 5.5 percent of the gasoline burned annually by America's cars and light trucks—7 billion gallons—goes to run air-conditioners. ...

Fifty-six percent of refrigerants worldwide are used for air-conditioning buildings and vehicles. North America, with 6 percent of the world's people, accounts for nearly 40 percent of its refrigerant market, as well as 43 percent of all refrigerants currently "banked" inside appliances and 38 percent of the resultant global-warming effects.So air conditioning is destroying the planet. And the cherry on top:

Better insulation and 'green' energy can never be enough to satisfy the nation's summer demand for A/C. Just to air-condition buildings—and do nothing else—would require eight times as much electricity from renewable energy as is currently produced.
That doesn't mean it couldn't be done, of course. But might Americans just have to use less A/C and learn to suffer through the heat if we want to convert to renewable energy, lower our carbon emissions, and have any hope of staving off global warming? Cox believes so, unless, of course, someone invents some sort of ultra-efficient air conditioner (the EPA recently raised energy-efficiency standards for A/C units by 30 percent, but even if all current units were replaced overnight, which they won't be, that would only mean a scant 5 percent reduction in power used for A/C).

Now as strategies for reducing emissions go, I'd prefer to focus on making more fuel-efficient cars and bolstering public transportation before killing the A/C. But what if we had to use less air conditioning? Our economy currently depends quite heavily on it, especially in warmer parts of the country. No one's going to go to a sweltering movie theater in June, after all, or spend hours in a mall buying lots of stuff, unless there's air conditioning to keep people cool. And without air conditioning, worker productivity would plummet during the hotter months (long summer vacations, of course, are out of the question—that's crazy socialist talk). Fun little dilemma we have here...

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