Don’t Sweat It

The case against the case against air conditioning.

A man takes a break in Bryant Park during a heat wave on June 9, 2011 in New York City.
Some people have a thermal machismo when it comes to enduring a heat wave, but they don’t understand that air conditioning is more than a creature comfort.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

There’s a scam going around this summer, one that takes advantage of the record heat. An unsolicited phone call or text message offers the promise of federal assistance with soaring electricity bills: Just hand over your Social Security number and a few other bits of personal data, and you’ll receive up to $1,000 toward the cost of your air conditioning. What makes this phishing scheme so effective—and so especially galling—is the fact that the home subsidies it purports to offer aren’t already in place.

Every year, the government sets aside billions of dollars to help low-income families pay for home heating and cooling. But ever since that program was launched around 30 years ago, it’s been clear that not all temperatures are granted equal protection under the law. Nine-tenths of the low-income home energy budget is spent during the winter months, says Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. In other words, if you’re poor and shivering, help is on the way. If you’re poor and sweaty, you’ll have to suck it up.

This anti-cooling bias doesn’t begin or end in Washington, D.C. Eighty-seven percent of American homes now have air conditioners, up from 68 percent in 1993, and yet a backlash against A/C appears to be on high. In June, the New York Times reported on the rapid spread of the appliance in the developing world, and the climate crisis that might result. A related piece, by the former head of the United Nations ozone program, compared air conditioning to the consumption of fatty foods—a dangerous luxury that makes us soft both in spirit and in flesh. Others have blamed A/C for the rise in obesity rates, a claim for which there’s no good evidence, but never mind: The idea that America’s various addictions might be linked together, that overeating and overspending and overcooling could all be part of the same disfiguring condition of modernity, is simply too delicious for some people to ignore.

A certain class of Americans—let’s call them the brrr-geoisie—has come to see the air conditioner as a stand-in for everything that’s wrong with the country and the world. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, cafés now throw open their windows in the dead of summer. They won’t succumb to a culture of gas-guzzling SUVs and soda-swilling layabouts! They’ll give us a place to endure the heat, to suffer the heat, to pretend to enjoy the heat, all while we sit in sweaty judgment of our neighbors. I’m working in one of these fresh-air establishments right now, my neck damp, and I’m trying to imagine the alternate universe where this place would apply the same logic in January, and shut down its furnace so we all could work as God intended. But for the brrr-geoisie, the two extremes of temperature reside in different moral categories. If one end of the thermostat corresponds to a basic human need—for warmth on a winter night—the other reveals a shameful self-indulgence. Heat is good, cool is evil. What’s behind this double standard? Why can’t we learn to stop worrying and love the air conditioner?

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.

If the primacy of heating isn’t a matter of importance, perhaps it’s one of comfort. Could it be that feeling cold just hurts a little more than feeling hot? McGill University pain researcher Jeff Mogil points to the finding that warm temperatures applied to the skin go from being merely unpleasant to causing outright pain in a span of just 2.5 degrees. For cool temperatures, the transition happens over 10 degrees. That might seem to suggest that heat is worse, since it turns from discomfort to pain more quickly, but Mogil sees it the other way around. Cold produces a greater range of unpleasant temperatures, he says. It starts to bug you sooner. A study of rats confirms that notion. The animals were trained to lick a pair of heating elements that could be made either hot (118 degrees Fahrenheit) or cold (25 degrees), temperatures that had been shown to cause them the same degree of discomfort when presented individually. When the rats were given a choice between the two, they went for the hot thermode four times as often.

But even if coldness were more unpleasant than heat on a per-degree basis, that doesn’t make it any more reasonable to fire up your furnace and spare your air conditioner. In many parts of the country, both weather extremes routinely push over the threshold for discomfort and bodily harm. Cold snaps and heat waves are often deadly, and while the question of which type of weather takes more lives remains unanswered, it does seem that summer deaths tend to be ignored.

In any case, there’s a certain pride in taking the heat, a thermal machismo that doesn’t apply as often when the mercury plunges. Anti-A/C crusaders invoke the sultry afternoons of yore, when ladies fanned themselves on the front porch and gentlemen rolled up their shirtsleeves and mopped their brows. Because air conditioning is a more recent invention than fire and furnaces, it seems less connected to who we are and who we’ve been.

But that’s the place to leave off Part 1, because the other arguments against air conditioning—that it harms our bodies and our souls—date to an earlier era. Almost 60 years ago, the expatriate Henry Miller derided his home country as “an air-conditioned nightmare,” but the politics of thermal comfort extends back even further, to the 19th-century intellectuals who scowled at America’s tendency to overheat its homes. For many decades, the stigma of the thermostat has reflected a deeper division in America, between the country’s red-hot Southern states and its cold, blue Northern ones. Tomorrow I’ll look more closely at this history, and explain how we got to thinking that A/C kills us with stale air.

Click here to read Part 2, in which Daniel Engber examines the politics of home cooling.