Not Cool

Uncomfortable truths about our addiction to air-conditioning.

What are some of the ills that follow in the wake of air-conditioning?
When it comes to health, air-conditioning has a kind of Jekyll and Hyde quality. We know it can save lives during heat waves and protect our more vulnerable citizens. But air-conditioning has as many negative as positive health effects. Researchers have found that all kinds of molds and bacteria tend to grow in cooling systems—especially in large buildings. People who work in air-conditioned environments tend to go to the doctor and spend more time in the hospital than people who work in non air-conditioned environments.

Are we in a vicious cycle, with air-conditioning contributing to global warming, and hotter temperatures contributing to an increased use of air-conditioning?
That’s one of the central ironies of my book. Air-conditioning and other technologies have brought us to the point where we see this dire threat from climate change, and one of the major technologies we are going to use to deal with it—air-conditioning—is going to contribute to further increases in temperature. Since the mid-1990s we’ve doubled the amount of electricity we use for cooling our homes.

What reaction have you received from readers? I expect you’ve received a certain amount of hate mail.
The worst onslaught of negative responses I received was after a Washington Post piece I wrote in July. I got almost 600 emails, and there was a heartfelt and almost panicky feeling to some of the messages: You’re not going to take this away from me!

Have you inspired people to give up air-conditioning cold turkey?
There have been a few people who have said that and some who have said they were going to use it very sparingly.

Do you envision a day when there will be backlash against air-conditioning?
I envision a day when we are going to face very tight limits on the amount of energy that we can use. And because it is such an energy hog, a lot of people will start eyeing their air-conditioning system.

What a lot of people are worried about is the rapid expansion in the use of air-conditioning in countries that up until now did not use it very much. In India only one to two percent of houses have air-conditioning, but right now forty percent of the electricity consumption in Mumbai is going for air-conditioning. And the country as a whole is expected to have an eleven- or twelve-fold increase in power use for air-conditioning by 2020.

How much did you use the air-conditioning in your house this summer?
As we do every summer, we ran it for one day, just to make sure it was in good working order. When we do that we try to time it for when it’s really hot and when we want to have people over and don’t want to put them through too much hardship.

Stan Cox’s “Losing Our Cool” Web site

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