In this summer of record heat, Americans have turned up their air conditioners. This little, local cooling has long-term effects. First, much of the energy required to run the air conditioners is derived from coal or natural gas that contributes to global warming. Second, even more greenhouse gases are released through the refrigerants that make air conditioning run, as detailed in a recent New York Times article by Elisabeth Rosenthal & Andrew Lehren. We are caught in a vicious cycle where global warming increases air-conditioning use which, in turn, intensifies global warming. This is just one example of the consequences deriving from human technology and consumption interacting with the environment in unpredictable ways that we will need to increasingly manage on a global scale.
Even without record heat waves, air conditioning use has been soaring. In the United States, energy used by air conditioning doubled from 1993 to 2005, Stan Cox writes in Yale Environment 360, then rose another 20% by 2010. He adds that the United States uses “more electricity for cooling than the entire continent of Africa, home to a billion people, consumes for all purposes.” Even more dangerous is the increase caused by rising living standards in populous countries. “Air-conditioning sales are growing 20 percent a year in China and India,” note Rosenthal & Lehren. Cox explains that China added 50 million air conditioning units in 2010 alone and is expected to become the world’s biggest user of air conditioners in 2020 (powered mainly by dirty coal). Indeed, air conditioning could “end up contributing about 20 percent of global warming to the entire world” according to Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, in a discussion on the Diane Rehm radio show. What seems to be a beneficial effect of globalization, the creation of new middle classes, turns out to be unsustainable for the planet as a whole.
Air conditioning is just one example of how rapidly developing countries simply must not follow the development path forged by the West. Rising consumption of meat is another, as meat production is a major contributor to climate change. The routine use of air travel is yet another. Of course, a corollary of saying that rising nations must not do these things is that affluent countries have to radically alter their lifestyles, yet no one is hurrying to volunteer to be first (although some European countries have tried).
In another paradox, the high level of global-warming gases released by refrigerants is largely due to perhaps the most successful global environmental treaty of all time, the Montreal Protocol, which phased out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were thinning the ozone layer. However, the new refrigerants emit substantial greenhouse gases; one used in the United States, the HFC coolant 410a, has a warming effect 2,100 times that of the United States, according to Rosenthal & Lehren. One problem solved, another emerges in its wake. Such are the hydra of difficulties in dealing with the consequences of technology at the global scale. Fortunately, there’s a technical solution in the form of gases that don’t cause global warming, but they need to be approved and moved into common use. Technology alone won’t save us but, if we implement it, it can do quite a bit.
The discussion on the Diane Rehm program covered a number of technical solutions: geothermal heat pumps, thermal storage, white roofs, passive architecture that stays cool in summer, smart grids that cut off air conditioning in empty rooms, even changing the way we dress in summer. Steve Yurek, president of the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, explained that air-conditioning efficiency has improved by 20-30% since 2006 alone and an additional 60% before that. However, those of us familiar with rebound, or the Jevons Paradox, could counter that this will only increase the spread of air conditioning—another example of how our best intentions have unintended consequences. Without a price on carbon, and one that rises steeply over the years, these technological advances may do little good.
And there are humanitarian reasons for air conditioning. As Cox described on the Diane Rehm show, “nobody’s going to be for cutting off the cooling in an intense heat wave for people who are vulnerable to heat because of age or ill health.” In India, among other countries, lack of air conditioning has a direct impact on productivity and health. And, while we don’t need to be blasting our air conditioning as we often do in the United States, for the sake of comfort few will turn off their air conditioning on hot days. A voluntary choice to reduce air conditioning, however, could be part of a wider public consensus, one encouraged by incentives. Technological advances will have to work together with lifestyle changes and government intervention.
I’ll use my wife and myself as an example here. Despite having a small house, last summer our largest monthly electricity bills came to over $200. In the fall, governmental programs helped us pay for an energy audit followed by serious energy-efficiency upgrades. We also enrolled in a program that cycles off our air conditioning at peak times. Our biggest monthly electricity bill this extremely hot summer came to $85; if such changes are widely applied, this represents a huge reduction in carbon emissions (unless the money saved ends up going to other carbon-intensive activities).
This would seem to be a success story; the problem is, most people are not investing in the energy-efficiency program, even though, with government incentives, it makes tremendous financial sense. However, money is tight and one cannot show off the new insulation to one’s neighbors. Government incentives work best in conjunction with a high level of environmental concern. Furthermore, my new, improved energy use might be extremely moderate by American standards, but, were the majority of the people on the planet to use that much carbon, emissions would be far too high.
The dilemma seems intractable. We need better technology, greater social awareness, and more effective governance at the global level. We need quick response to the cascade of problems caused by our quickly evolving technology and its effects on the biosphere. We live on an extremely complex planet, and, once we’ve begun to change the basic composition of the atmosphere, we need to continually tinker, evaluate, and retinker—hopefully in a minimalist way that creates the fewest side effects. The unintended consequences of banning chlorofluorocarbons may be a small foretaste of what will happen once we begin geoengineering (a contingency that seems increasingly likely as we fail to control our carbon emissions). As we bumble forward in our quest to help the environment (while maintaining economic growth) our mistakes seem to compound each other. But such mistakes, tragically, seem unavoidable.
Ethan Goffman is Associate Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. His publications have appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Grist, and elsewhere. He is the author of Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature (State University of New York Press, 2000) and coeditor of The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond (Purdue University Press, 2009) and Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010). Ethan is a member of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter of the Sierra Club.