Europe to Amer­ica: Your strong love of air con­di­tion­ing is stupid and self­ish

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - RICK NOACK  rick.noack@wash­post.com

The weather in Wash­ing­ton and Ber­lin has been pretty sim­i­lar this month: hot and hu­mid. There is one strik­ing dif­fer­ence be­tween the U.S. and Ger­man cap­i­tals, though: Whereas many Amer­i­cans would prob­a­bly never con­sider liv­ing or work­ing in build­ings with­out air-con­di­tion­ing, many Ger­mans think life with­out cli­mate con­trol is far su­pe­rior.

The di­vide tran­scends Ber­lin and D.C.: Many Euro­pean vis­i­tors com­plain about the “freez­ing cold” tem­per­a­tures in­side U.S. buses and ho­tels. Amer­i­can tourists on the other side of the At­lantic, mean­while, are stunned by Euro­peans’ ap­par­ent abil­ity to cope with heat, whether at work or home.

Over­all, it’s safe to say that Europe thinks Amer­ica’s love of air con­di­tion­ing verges on daft. Euro­peans have won­dered about this par­tic­u­lar U.S. ad­dic­tion for a while now: In 1992, Cam­bridge Univer­sity Pro­fes­sor Gwyn Prins called it the coun­try’s “most per­va­sive and least-no­ticed epi­demic,” ac­cord­ing to the Econ­o­mist. And the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency re­ports that it is worse now: U.S. de­mand for air con­di­tion­ing has in­creased over the past decades.

Ac­cord­ing to cli­mate-con­trol re­searcher Stan Cox, the United States con­sumes more en­ergy for air con­di­tion­ing than any other coun­try. In many parts of the world, eco­nomic un­der­de­vel­op­ment might be to blame for the rel­a­tive rar­ity of air con­di­tion­ing. But that doesn’t ex­plain the ridicule and crit­i­cism di­rected at Amer­i­cans by Euro­peans.

It’s true that North­ern Europe is colder than most U.S. re­gions and that some Euro­pean coun­tries, such as Italy or Spain, have in­creased their use of air con­di­tion­ing. “The U.S. is some­what un­usual in be­ing a wealthy na­tion, much of whose pop­u­la­tion lives in very warm, hu­mid re­gions,” Cox wrote in an e-mail. How­ever, the dif­fer­ences in av­er­age tem­per­a­tures are un­likely to be the only rea­son for Euro­peans’ aver­sion to cool­ing sys­tems. It’s also about cul­tural dif­fer­ences.

Whereas Amer­i­cans pre­fer an av­er­age tem­per­a­ture of 70 de­grees, Euro­peans find that too cold, said Michael Si­vak of the Univer­sity of Michi­gan. “Amer­i­cans tend to keep their ther­mostats at the same tem­per­a­ture all year around. In con­trast, Euro­peans tend to set their ther­mostats higher in sum­mer and lower in win­ter. Con­se­quently, while in­doors, Euro­peans wear sweaters in win­ter, while Amer­i­cans wear sweaters in sum­mer.”

Another fac­tor is Euro­peans’ acute aware­ness of cli­mate change. Ac­cord­ing to a 2014 sur­vey, a ma­jor­ity of Euro­peans would wel­come more ac­tion to stop global warm­ing. Two-thirds of all E.U. cit­i­zens said that economies should be trans­formed in an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly man­ner. Cool­ing uses much more en­ergy than heat­ing, which is why many Euro­peans say they don’t mind sweat­ing for a few days if it will help head off con­tin­u­ous suf­fer­ing un­der the ef­fects of global warm­ing in the fu­ture.

To be sure, even Euro­peans have to ac­knowl­edge the ad­van­tages of air con­di­tion­ing: Stud­ies show that cool­ing im­proves work ef­fi­ciency and sleep pat­terns in sum­mer and may even re­duce mor­tal­ity. Why would Euro­peans choose to forgo such ben­e­fits?

It turns out that air con­di­tion­ing isn’t the only way to keep cool. E.U. reg­u­la­tions force com­pa­nies to build more en­ergy-ef­fi­cient work spa­ces, ac­cord­ing to the New York Times. Cool air can be pumped up from un­der­ground, and ex­te­rior walls can be made more heat-re­sis­tant. Think of those thick brick walls most Euro­pean homes boast.

Amer­i­cans’ air-con­di­tion­ing ad­dic­tion may also have a long- term neg­a­tive side ef­fect: It will make it harder for the United States to ask other coun­tries to ab­stain from us­ing it to save en­ergy.

“The bot­tom line is that Amer­ica’s a big, rich, hot coun­try,” Cox wrote. “But if the se­cond, fourth, and fifth most pop­u­lous na­tions — In­dia, In­done­sia, and Brazil, all hot and hu­mid — were to use as much en­ergy per capita for air con­di­tion­ing as does the U.S., it would re­quire 100 per­cent of those coun­tries’ elec­tric­ity sup­plies, plus all of the elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated by Mex­ico, the U.K., Italy, and the en­tire con­ti­nent of Africa.”

That’s not an un­likely sce­nario: In 2007, 2 per­cent of In­dian house­holds had air con­di­tion­ing, but the num­ber has sky­rock­eted since.

“In metropoli­tan Mum­bai alone, the large pop­u­la­tion and hot cli­mate com­bine to cre­ate a po­ten­tial en­ergy de­mand for cool­ing that is about a quar­ter of the cur­rent de­mand of the en­tire United States,” Si­vak con­cluded in a pa­per pub­lished by the Amer­i­can Sci­en­tist.

“If ev­ery­one were to adopt the U.S.’s air-con­di­tion­ing life­style, en­ergy use could rise ten­fold by 2050,” Cox added, re­fer­ring to the 87 per­cent of Amer­i­can house­holds with air con­di­tion­ing. Given that most of the world’s boom­ing cities are in trop­i­cal places and that none of them has so far em­u­lated the Euro­pean approach to air con­di­tion­ing, such cal­cu­la­tions raise jus­ti­fied con­cern.

KON­STANTI­NOS TSAKA­LIDIS/BLOOMBERG NEWS

A cus­tomer browses air-con­di­tion­ing units in Thes­sa­loniki, Greece. Euro­peans tend to frown on them, par­tially due to cul­tural bias.

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