As the mercury begins to rise in what's sure to be a long, hot summer, it's time to break our addiction to air conditioning, says Stan Cox, author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned Word (And Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer). Dave McGinn spoke to Mr. Cox about why it's time to put AC on ice.
How much of an impact does air conditioning have on the environment?
If the predictions hold true, we're going to be experiencing a lot longer and stronger heat waves and more hot summer weather partly because of the very large quantities of greenhouse-gas emissions from building and automobile air conditioning. Just from air-conditioned buildings in the U.S., the amount of electricity being used to do that annually is as much as all of the electricity used for all purposes on the continent of Africa.
What impact does it have on human health?
Lack of activity under hot conditions reduces your mental and physical tolerance of heat, so people are more susceptible to heat stress if they're living continuously in air conditioning. And one of the most important ways in which it has health effects is by keeping people indoors and inactive, which is almost certainly contributing to rates of obesity.
How else do you think air conditioning shapes the way we live?
By taking the balance of comfort from the outdoors to the indoors, air conditioning has meant that people may still be interacting with other people, but it may be through Facebook or e-mail rather than face to face.
What do you think the solution is? Do we just need to chuck our AC units out the window?
There's really no way we can go cold turkey, so to speak, right now. It's built into our working life and our home life and how we get from work to home and back. But there are a lot of ways in which to do without air conditioning and still be comfortable in most weather.
What about at work? A lot of buildings are freezing in the summer, but I'm sure some people would say it keeps staff from becoming disgruntled and helps them be productive.
To a great extent, I think [turning the AC down]would make employees happier. You hear a lot of reports about people taking sweaters and space heaters with them to work in the summertime. It's assumed that the cooler you keep it in summer, the more comfortable and productive people will be. But the evidence is very mixed about that.
Should employers put in place more casual dress codes in the summer so that people can still be comfortable with the air conditioning turned down?
Relaxing of dress standards at workplaces would be one thing that ought to be done.
A lot of people see AC as a necessity. How can we make it through the summer without it?
In the long run, there are technologies that are not really widespread now, but could reduce the amount of energy we use for cooling. I do caution, however, that simply making air conditioning more energy-efficient isn't necessarily going to save energy. The money that's saved is used either to run the air conditioning more or [people]use the energy for other purposes.
What about short-term solutions?
Probably the best way to ease into it is to turn on the air conditioning later in the spring. There's a tendency just to switch from heating to air conditioning without ever opening the house up. Wait before turning it on. And then not just to automatically let it keep running into the later part of the summer. Look for chances to turn it off. Take refuge in cooler, darker places. And, of course, the way we dress has a tremendous effect on our bodies' ability to shed heat.
What do you say to the people who say they just can't live without air conditioning in the summer?
I would say I can understand. It's not that people have some kind of moral failing. It's largely because the person is living in a very well-insulated home. And they probably have a long commute on a blistering hot highway to get to a workplace where they're stuck way back in the middle of a building where it would be uninhabitable in the summer without air conditioning.
So why should anyone give up air conditioning?
You might find that over all you're getting more harm than benefits from air conditioning. Just always be conscious of ways in which you can practise a little withdrawal from it and see how it goes.