An online "Room for Debate" segment posted on the New York Times website June 21 posed a left-leaning question to a symposium of six left-leaning outside experts: "Should Air-Conditioning Go Global, or Be Rationed Away?" While it may have been acceptable for New Yorkers to beat the heat with air conditioning, when developing countries like India strives for the same comfort, it becomes an environmental concern to privileged liberals. The Times asked from its air-conditioned headquarters in Midtown Manhattan:
Temperatures in New York City have pushed toward 100 degrees this week, and air-conditioners strained the power grid (thanks in part to stores with their doors open). Meanwhile the demand for coolant gases, especially in rapidly developing countries like India, threatens to accelerate global warming.
Is it a good goal for everyone in the world to have access to air-conditioning -- like clean water or the Internet? Or is it an unsustainable luxury, which air-conditioned societies should be giving up or rationing?
The debate was keyed to a 2,000-word piece that same day by environmental reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal, "Relief in Every Window, but Global Worry Too."
In the ramshackle apartment blocks and sooty concrete homes that line the dusty roads of urban India, there is a new status symbol on proud display. An air-conditioner has become a sign of middle-class status in developing nations, a must-have dowry item.
It is cheaper than a car, and arguably more life-changing in steamy regions, where cooling can make it easier for a child to study or a worker to sleep.
But as air-conditioners sprout from windows and storefronts across the world, scientists are becoming increasingly alarmed about the impact of the gases on which they run. All are potent agents of global warming.
So the therapy to cure one global environmental disaster is now seeding another. “There is precious little time to do something, to act,” said Stephen O. Andersen, the co-chairman of the treaty’s technical and economic advisory panel.
Rosenthal also contributed a personal dose of liberal guilt to the paper's Green blog, "My Air-Conditioner Envy," complaining that she can't buy a more environmentally correct model and so chooses to forgo repairing her old evil one. (A confession that calls Rosenthal's journalistic objectivity on the matter into question.)
With scorching heat enveloping New York City this week, I’m suffering from air-conditioner envy. I want a model like the one I saw in April at the Terre Policy Center in Pune, India. But I can’t buy it.
As Andrew W. Lehren and I report in The Times, the warming effects of air-conditioning gases are reaching crisis proportions as more and more people in countries like India and China buy the appliances. (Some readers have rightly pointed out that people in industrialized countries depend far more heavily on air-conditioning.)
At least she's not a hypocrite; Rosenthal is willing to (metaphorically) don Jimmy Carter's cardigan sweater, and personally suffer in the heat to save the planet.
Which is why I can’t bear to replace the old air-conditioner in my living room, even though it is on the fritz and not cooling much these days. Having reported on the coolant issue, I am reluctant to invest in a model containing any of the coolant gases commercially available in the United States. I’d prefer to wait until a machine with a climate-friendly coolant is available. And I know there are many options in development.
In August 2011, Rosenthal called on China and India to turn off their air conditioners to save the planet, writing "As more people in more countries come to rely on air-conditioning, the idea of thermal comfort may need to be rethought to curb the growth in greenhouse gas emissions."