The share of electric utilities' output that goes to power air-conditioning has escalated relentlessly over the past decade and a half. The resulting greenhouse emissions are expected to make the outdoor climate harsher in coming decades. More hot weather will stimulate even greater demand for air-conditioning, resulting in the combustion of even more fossil fuels and further rounds of warming.
Partly as a result, the US Global Change Research Program and the Environmental Protection Agency expect the death rate from summer heat waves to rise steeply between now and 2050. (1) Accordingly, air-conditioning is being viewed less and less as an amenity and more as a life-support system. But even though air-conditioning has helped reduce death rates during heat waves over the past half-century, it has not eliminated them. Heat remains the nation's leading cause of weather-related mortality. Meanwhile, in many ways, air-conditioning has been playing a leading role in the distortion of American society for decades.
Many who die from heat stress don't have air-conditioning or cannot afford to run it, but that's only part of the story. Just as important are the generally harsh conditions under which heat-wave victims often live. They typically suffer and die in economically forgotten, concrete-rich, vegetation-free stretches of large, mostly northern cities. The nature of the surrounding community can be a matter of life and death in a heat wave. A study by the Midwestern Climate Center found that "features of neighborhoods on a relatively small geographic scale (e.g., amount of pedestrian traffic, small shops, public meeting places) affect survival rates [positively]." The researchers also suggested that in such areas, fear of crime makes already vulnerable people, especially older people, reluctant to leave doors and windows open or to go outdoors in the cooler evening hours. (2)
Christian Warren, an associate professor at Brooklyn College specializing in the history of US public health and medicine, told me he is troubled by our reliance on climate control as a remedy for ills that run much deeper: "Now you see air-conditioning pitched in the medical literature as an environmental justice issue, because it can save lives during heat waves. But they aren't asking what really kills people. What about isolation, economic stress, crime, and paranoia about crime? You can easily imagine a couple staying shut away in their air-conditioned apartment during a hot spell, uninterested in checking on their elderly next-door neighbor, who could be dying of heat stroke."
The quest for control of the summer climate took off a half century ago in the warm, muggy South. By the 1980s, air conditioning had thoroughly transformed the region's culture, leading Southern historian Raymond Arsenault to opine that "General Electric has proved a more devastating invader than General Sherman." (3)
One of the most striking changes, noted Arsenault, was a sharp decline in "human interaction with the natural environment." For evidence, he wrote, "one has only to walk down almost any Southern street on a hot summer afternoon, listen to the whir of compressors, and look in vain for open windows or human faces." In the quarter-century that followed, air conditioning spread most quickly through regions far from the Sunbelt. In New England, for example, only 41 % of homes had air conditioning in 1993, whereas more than two-thirds have it today.
An ill wind
Today, in much of the country, it's hard to imagine life before air-conditioning. The idea that our society should become less dependent on climate control can seem radical, even absurd. But the post-air-conditioned world need not be one of malaise, poor health, social...