An un­com­fort­able truth: Air con­di­tion­ing isn’t as cool as you think

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

When a na­tional group of ur­ban plan­ning his­to­ri­ans was asked to rank the most im­por­tant in­flu­ences on the Amer­i­can me­trop­o­lis in the last half of the 20th cen­tury, their top 10 list fo­cused on so­cial, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments. Of the many tech­no­log­i­cal de­vices that helped shape our lives dur­ing that era, only two made the list: the au­to­mo­bile and the air con­di­tioner.

The car cul­ture’s im­pact on cities and sub­urbs has been the sub­ject of heated de­bate for decades. But all the while, hum­ming away in­con­spic­u­ously in the back­ground, air con­di­tion­ing also has been chang­ing the way we live and chang­ing us, and not al­ways for the bet­ter.

In 1960, air con­di­tion­ing was found in only 12 per­cent of U.S. homes and 20 per­cent of cars. Even in the South, only 18 per­cent of homes had it. To­day, 85 per­cent of homes na­tion­wide have air con­di­tion­ing, and vir­tu­ally no new house or car is built with­out it.

The as­cen­dancy of air con­di­tion­ing has had its most ob­vi­ous im­pact on our choice of where to live. Be­tween 1960 and 2009, the pop­u­la­tion of the North­east Cen­sus re­gion grew by 23 per­cent and that of the Mid­west by 28 per­cent. Mean­while, the South swelled by 96 per­cent and the West bal­looned by 143 per­cent. A mass mi­gra­tion-within-a-mi­gra­tion led mil­lions of fam­i­lies to the vast sub­urbs that sprouted on the cheap land ring­ing Sun­belt cities — and air con­di­tion­ing made hot, hu­mid and mosquitoin­fested re­gions more hab­it­able.

Sub­ur­bia’s orig­i­nal ap­peal came wrapped in vi­sions of green earth, clear skies and back­yard bliss. But to ful­fill the dreams of home buy­ers on mod­est in­comes, de­vel­op­ers cut back on costly struc­tural fea­tures such as mov­able win­dow sashes, screens, awn­ings and eaves, high ceil­ings, ther­mal mass, cross-ven­ti­lated de­signs and at­tic fans. They bull­dozed shade trees and built for me­chan­i­cal cli­mate con­trol. Fam­i­lies re­sponded by spend­ing more time in­doors.

Not ev­ery­one em­braced the con­cept of Oc­to­ber weather in July. Asked by re­searchers con­duct­ing a 1990s sur­vey on air con­di­tioner us­age why she left hers turned off, a Cal­i­for­nia apart­ment res­i­dent re­sponded, “Be­cause it makes it too hot out­side.” She had a point. With less ex­po­sure to heat, stud­ies show, our phys­i­cal and mental tol­er­ance for heat de­clines — and our fond­ness for the air con­di­tioner grows.

In ev­ery re­gion of the coun­try, busi­ness-world stan­dards of dress and ap­pear­ance have been de­signed specif­i­cally for a cool, dry of­fice at­mos­phere. And ve­hi­cle air con­di­tion­ers en­sure that com­muters don’t ar­rive on the job sweat-soaked and wind­blown. Me­chan­i­cal cool­ing also al­lows a com­pany to con­cen­trate large num­bers of em­ploy­ees in the in­ex­pen­sive, win­dow­less space deep within an of­fice block. One re­sult is that many shiv­er­ing em­ploy­ees are car­ry­ing sweaters and space heaters to work in sum­mer.

Heavy-handed cli­mate con­trol makes good busi­ness sense. Like com­put­ers, economies run faster when they’re nei­ther over­heated nor frozen. A 2008 Na­tional Bureau of Eco­nomic Re­search study con­cluded that in the era of air con­di­tion­ing, the gen­eral ten­dency of hot weather to de­press eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity no longer af­fects the world’s wealth­ier na­tions. That 70 per­cent of U.S. eco­nomic growth since 1960 has oc­curred in the South and West bears that out.

But that growth has come at a high cost. The long com­mut­ing time that lies be­tween an af­ford­able mort­gage and a de­sir­able pay­check has grown year by year, with the prob­lem most acute in the nation’s hot­ter cities. On av­er­age, the over­cooked driv­ers of traf­fic-choked Los An­ge­les, At­lanta, Dal­las-Fort Worth, Hous­ton and Mi­ami are stuck in de­lays more than three times as many hours per year as driv­ers in Pitts­burgh, Cleve­land, Detroit, Cincin­nati and Buf­falo.

The re­lent­less in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of work and com­mut­ing pat­terns could not have been sus­tained sum­mer af­ter sum­mer with­out the air­con­di­tioned pipe­line that con­veys em­ploy­ees in cool ve­hi­cles from cool homes to cool of­fices and back.

But the park­ing lots, road­ways and build­ings that sup­port that ef­fi­cient de­liv­ery sys­tem also trap and re-ra­di­ate so­lar en­ergy, cre­at­ing the so-called ur­ban heat is­land ef­fect. Cities and free­ways now stay sev­eral de­grees hot­ter than the sur­round­ing coun­try­side dur­ing the day and as much as 20 de­grees warmer at night.

Run­ning full blast, a car’s air con­di­tioner dra­mat­i­cally in­creases lev­els of nox­ious ex­haust, guar­an­tee­ing that other driv­ers will have to keep their win­dows closed and the air run­ning. In that, as in many other ways — by ag­gra­vat­ing global warm­ing, by en­cour­ag­ing poor build­ing ven­ti­la­tion, by in­creas­ing our own bi­o­log­i­cal sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to heat — de­pen­dence on air con­di­tion­ing al­ways seems to gen­er­ate de­mand for more air con­di­tion­ing.

Air con­di­tion­ing build­ings and cars in the U.S. has the cli­mate im­pact of half a bil­lion met­ric tons of car­bon diox­ide a year. That ex­ceeds the to­tal an­nual car­bon diox­ide emis­sions of any one of these na­tions: Aus­tralia, France, Brazil or In­done­sia. In an ef­fort to re­duce en­ergy use and curb green­house emis­sions, in­dus­try and govern­ment are pur­su­ing more ef­fi­cient cool­ing tech­nolo­gies for cars and build­ings. But greater ef­fi­ciency can’t re­verse the un­sus­tain­able liv­ing, work­ing and trans­porta­tion pat­terns that air con­di­tion­ing has helped fos­ter.

Greener build­ing de­signs that fa­vor nat­u­ral ven­ti­la­tion will help, but in the mil­lions of ex­ist­ing homes, work­places and schools that we’ll be us­ing for decades to come, the most im­por­tant ad­just­ment will be not in our ther­mostats but in our own com­fort ex­pec­ta­tions.

Busi­nesses can help. Stud­ies find that the ma­jor­ity of of­fice em­ploy­ees are al­ready dis­sat­is­fied with their work­place tem­per­a­ture, and that the most im­por­tant im­prove­ment em­ploy­ers can make is to give work­ers more con­trol over win­dows, shades, air move­ment, cloth­ing, po­si­tion and lo­ca­tion.

The key to re­duc­ing the im­pact of mo­bile air con­di­tion­ing is to keep as many cars as pos­si­ble at home and switched off. That will mean re­struc­tur­ing cities and sub­urbs as pedes­trian havens, dis­cour­ag­ing car travel (and keep­ing cities cooler) by re­plac­ing park­ing lots with parks, and launch­ing a crash ex­pan­sion of in­ex­pen­sive, con­ve­nient and cool mass trans­porta­tion.

In other words, we need to back out of the eco­log­i­cal dead-end al­ley we’ve been trav­el­ing down for half a cen­tury. It won’t be easy. With air con­di­tion­ing so thor­oughly in­te­grated into Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, we’re go­ing to have trou­ble find­ing re­verse gear. But it’s there.

Air con­di­tion­ing has changed the way we live.

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