NYT's Rosenthal Again Tries to Get World to Turn Off the Air: 'We Can't Live With Air-Conditioning...'

August 20th, 2012 8:01 PM

New York Times environmental reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal's latest 1,600-word attack on air conditioning,"The Cost of Cool," made the front of the Sunday Review. " The text box: "Air-conditioning makes us feel better, but it's hurting the planet."

Rosenthal previously argued in a June 21 post on the paper's "Green" blog complaining that she can't buy an environmentally correct air conditioner and so chose to suffer (but not in silence) in the name of fighting "climate change," which she assumes is a proven fact and a clear danger to humanity.

Rosenthal wrote on Sunday:

The blackouts that left hundreds of millions of Indians sweltering in the dark last month underscored the status of air-conditioning as one of the world’s most vexing environmental quandaries.

Fact 1: Nearly all of the world’s booming cities are in the tropics and will be home to an estimated one billion new consumers by 2025. As temperatures rise, they -- and we -- will use more air-conditioning.

Fact 2: Air-conditioners draw copious electricity, and deliver a double whammy in terms of climate change, since both the electricity they use and the coolants they contain result in planet-warming emissions.

Fact 3: Scientific studies increasingly show that health and productivity rise significantly if indoor temperature is cooled in hot weather. So cooling is not just about comfort.

Sum up these facts and it’s hard to escape: Today’s humans probably need air-conditioning if they want to thrive and prosper. Yet if all those new city dwellers use air-conditioning the way Americans do, life could be one stuttering series of massive blackouts, accompanied by disastrous planet-warming emissions.

We can’t live with air-conditioning, but we can’t live without it.


Projections of air-conditioning use are daunting. In 2007, only 11 percent of households in Brazil and 2 percent in India had air-conditioning, compared with 87 percent in the United States, which has a more temperate climate, said Michael Sivak, a research professor in energy at the University of Michigan. “There is huge latent demand,” Mr. Sivak said. “Current energy demand does not yet reflect what will happen when these countries have more money and more people can afford air-conditioning.” He has estimated that, based on its climate and the size of the population, the cooling needs of Mumbai alone could be about a quarter of those of the entire United States, which he calls “one scary statistic.”

It is easy to decry the problem but far harder to know what to do, especially in a warming world where people in the United States are using our existing air-conditioners more often. The number of cooling degree days -- a measure of how often cooling is needed -- was 17 percent above normal in the United States in 2010, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, leading to “an increase in electricity demand.” This July was the hottest ever in the United States.

Rosenthal had helpful advice (or will they become rules?) for how people could alter their lives to fight the unproven threat posed by global warming, betting that people "could acclimatize to warmer conditions," shake off their "cultural differences in cooling preferences," or else just sweat it out in silence.

Building managers could increase airflow in hot buildings, for example, which improves comfort. Workers could wear lighter, looser clothing to work in summer -- instead of carrying sweaters to protect themselves from over-chilled air. Architects could design office blocks using materials that did not conduct so much heat and where humans could open the windows to take advantage of natural ventilation and breezes.


Mr. Wargocki says that an office temperature in the mid to high 70s should be fine. The comfortable temperature for sleeping (naked) is around 84, Mr. Tanabe says, if a fan is on.

Those suggestions are a good deal warmer than the norms in the United States, which underlines a cultural differences in cooling preferences.