Summer used to be my favourite time of year, but now it’s wearing me out. The season’s gift was the ability to slip outside with barely any clothes on, but now I spend 10 minutes finding a hat, filling a water bottle, making sure I’m properly sunscreened and packing painkillers for an inevitable heat headache. I have never been a climate-change denier, but this freakish weather is still an unpleasant surprise. Temperatures that feel like 45C have made me even more contrarian: we need to turn down the air conditioning.
Don’t get me wrong, I use mine. It’s either that or spend the night awake, snapping at my husband every time we accidentally brush revoltingly sweaty limbs. I’d be a hypocrite to ask other people to turn their aircon off, but I have been trying to chill out with my chill machine. I work at home, and last week retreated into the dark, almost frigid basement, allowing me to keep the air off until mid-afternoon. We slept down there a few nights as well, basically reducing a three-floor living space to a very cluttered 300 square feet.
This helps keep the electricity bill down, but more importantly, it helps quell my growing anxiety. I love a sunny, 30-degree day – after all, I spent my childhood in the desert. But this is not desert heat. This is weird, worrisome heat, thick with pollution, and I want to feel like I’m doing something about it.
Like so many things, air conditioning is available in abundance to a lucky few, but limited for those who really need it. Wealthier Canadians are more likely to leave the A/C blowing in an empty house, says Statistics Canada. Meanwhile, students in poorly maintained schools don’t earn the same grades as those in new, modern buildings, and teachers in both Canada and the U.S. place some of the blame on stifling temperatures that make it impossible to concentrate. Texas is facing a number of lawsuits from prison advocates who blame unbearable heat for 13 inmate deaths since 2007. And a doctor in Windsor, Ontario told the CBC that his psychiatric beds fill up quickly when mental health patients without access to air conditioning experience unbalanced brain chemicals during heatwaves.
Unsurprisingly, air conditioning is only growing in popularity. Between 1990 and 2007, we Canadians almost tripled the amount of energy we use on cooling. Ah, the 1990s, when our big environmental worry was that coolants in air conditioners were destroying the ozone layer. The good news is that new technology replaced those chemicals. The bad news is that it replaced them with chemicals that contribute twice as much to excess carbon dioxide and global warming.
The extra bad news is that newly moneyed citizens of Brazil, India and China can’t get enough of these super-climate-change-accelerating air conditioning units. Western advisors try to convince them it’s a luxury, not a necessity. But that’s transparent hypocrisy when we suck back so much energy on air conditioning ourselves.
Canada’s embarrassing official non-action on climate change seems to have paralyzed efforts on the personal front. Friends with office jobs complain about the irony of carrying a cardigan into work on a stifling hot day, but none have mentioned asking for a more reasonable setting on the thermostat. City governments politely ask storekeepers not to crank up the A/C before opening their doors to the sweltering streets – but why not make it a ticketable offense, and then actually hand out tickets? Turn up the thermostat a degree or two, and consider it a duty, not martyrdom.
The ultimate irony of air conditioning is that it makes everything hotter, so let’s save it for when we really need it.