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AC reliance leads to eco-guilt during Central Canada heat wave

You carry your groceries home in a canvas bag. You only use energy-efficient light bulbs. You even bike to work to reduce your carbon footprint.

But what happens when temperatures creep past 30 C and humidity levels feel high enough to melt paint off the walls?

You can turn on the air conditioner and feel immediate, cooling relief. But pressing the 'on' button also means dealing with the nagging sense of guilt over the massive amount of energy being used and pollution being created so you can feel more comfortable.

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Call it eco-guilt: a moral quandary being faced by thousands of environmentally conscious and sweaty Canadians being gripped by extreme temperatures reaching the upper 30s - not to mention the humidity - in the central part of the country.

"I would love to reduce our dependency on the air conditioning, especially in the summer," said Laura Kotick, a mother of two who lives in Kanata, a suburb of Ottawa. "[But]I feel like we can't even live without it."

Ms. Kotick said she always feels guilty when turning on the air conditioner, even though she tries to limit her family's usage and keeps it set to 26 C to avoid eating up too much energy.

She's like many in Ontario and Quebec who are struggling this week to maintain their environmental stewardship while being tempted by the easy convenience of air conditioning.

The extreme heat hasn't hit other parts of the country, however. Vancouver was a warm 19 C Tuesday afternoon, while it was 21 C in Edmonton. Some parts of eastern Canada, such as Halifax and Charlottetown, are expected to climb to the mid-30s with humidity this week.

Every summer, officials warn the public about the need to conserve energy and cut down on air conditioners and other appliances that use significant amounts of electricity. Major electricity usage also contributes to pollution and leads to serious air-quality issues that can be a danger to health.

A major part of the problem is that Canadians have become too accustomed to cold-air blasts from air conditioners and don't realize they can feel comfortable in a room that's in the mid-20s, said Mike Layton, deputy outreach director at Environmental Defence, a national advocacy group.

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"I think we might be a little quick to the draw to say 'Oh, it's too hot, let's turn on the AC.' We don't need to be freezing," Mr. Layton said. "On days where it's this hot, Toronto, suck it up."

Mr. Layton and other health advocates and officials note this advice doesn't apply to those with medical conditions or the elderly who need to be cool for health reasons.

But others should rethink the habit of turning on the air conditioner, especially since there are alternatives that can help keep things cool, said Ian Bruce, climate-change specialist with the David Suzuki Foundation. Installing a "whole house fan", which is typically installed in a home's attic and works by reducing the amount of hot air circulating in a building, is one effective alternative, he said. But even keeping blinds or curtains closed can help reduce a home's heat, he said.

Of course, not everyone is consumed by guilt at the thought of expanding their carbon footprint. Mark Bradley, a 63-year-old Windsor, Ont. resident, said he can't deal with the heat like he could when he was younger. He also lives in a high-rise condominium building that doesn't allow for good ventilation of outdoor air. He uses a small portable air conditioner at night to help him sleep.

Even though he doesn't experience eco-guilt, Mr. Bradley said he thinks people are too reliant on air conditioners. He grew up before they were common household items and knows we can live without them, but said Canadians are now too addicted to the technology.

"I don't think we can live without [air conditioners]anymore," Mr. Bradley said.

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For her part, Ms. Kotick and her husband have installed ceiling fans and keep the blinds closed. But on hot nights, when her children are trying to sleep, Ms. Kotick turns on the AC and deals with the guilt.

"I don't want cranky kids in the morning," she said.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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