Europe to America: Your strong love of air conditioning is stupid and selfish
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.
A customer browses air-conditioning units in Thessaloniki, Greece. Europeans tend to frown on them, partially due to cultural bias.