The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is our reliance on air-conditioning warming the planet?

In conversation with Eric Dean Wilson, a professor who investigates the history and impact of artificial cooling on the environment

Old refrigerators and freezers are collected in a container in a recycling center. (Christian Charisius/picture-alliance/dpa/AP)

In 1987, history was made when the Montreal Protocol banned CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), air conditioner refrigerants that were escaping into the atmosphere and rapidly tearing a hole in the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Eric Dean Wilson, a professor who teaches climate-themed writing and environmental justice at Queens College in New York, has spent much of the past six years investigating the history and impact of artificial cooling on the environment.

“I took a hard, critical look at something so familiar and mundane to us, to defamiliarize it and to see how it’s connected to our planetary emergency,” he told The Washington Post.

Wilson writes about how we narrowly averted ecological disaster in his new book, “After Cooling, on Freon, Global Warming and the Terrible Cost of Comfort.”

But overdependence on air conditioning remains a serious problem. Ironically, he writes, “Our unthinking acceptance of temperature-controlled comfort has pushed the world closer to discomfort” by accelerating global warming.

We’ll need to adopt lower-energy cooling methods and change some of our more wasteful habits, Wilson says. Young people make him hopeful. They are recognizing that the pursuit of personal comfort at all costs needs to end, he observes, and they have begun imagining a new kind of economy — one that will create a more comfortable and sustainable Earth for all of us to live on.

Wilson talked to us about how restricting our use of artificial cooling can help put the brake on global warming.

Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Richard Schiffman: You quote an expert in the book as saying that, pound for pound, Freon is “the worst stuff on the planet.” What is Freon?

Eric Dean Wilson: Freon is a brand name of one of a class of chemicals called CFCs that have been widely used as refrigerants and propellants in aerosols. CFCs destroy the ozone layer, which one classic science writer describes as “all that stands between us and speedy death.” Without it, no plant, no animal could exist under the barrage of ultraviolet radiation that would hit the Earth. CFCs created the infamous ozone hole at the South Pole that stretched wider than North America and still appears every year.

How do CFCs destroy ozone?

They make their way to the stratosphere, just above where commercial jets fly, where the ultraviolet rays of the sun break them down into chlorine, which prevents the creation of ozone in the stratosphere.

When did scientists realize that this reputedly safe chemical was endangering life on Earth?

Two chemists, Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland, published a study in 1974 that demonstrated that CFC gases were having a damaging effect on ozone in the atmosphere. In 1995 they were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on this.

They basically said that we better pay attention to this or a vital mechanism of the Earth’s atmosphere will be destroyed. Industry immediately fought it, saying that there was no evidence of harm. But the scientific world took the findings seriously, and a debate began, mostly over how much ozone depletion was happening and over what span of time.

As the consensus grew that CFCs were posing an imminent threat, they began to be phased out.

That’s right. The phaseout happened in two stages. Initially, CFCs were removed from aerosol spray cans and other nonessential uses. It turned out replacing them with other propellants was a lot cheaper. Industry marketed the alternatives as ozone-friendly, an early example of green marketing.

People assumed that the problem was fixed. But the real problem was the CFCs used in cooling equipment. The Reagan administration for the most part opposed environmental regulations. But during the later Reagan years, there was an EPA administrator, Lee Thomas, who went rogue and fought to phase CFCs out entirely, which no other country at that time was looking to do. So suddenly the international community began paying attention to phasing out CFCs and moving to an alternative.

Is there another way to tell the climate story that would get the world to act as it did on CFCs?

This is the question that as an artist and writer keeps me up at night. It points to the importance of our storytellers. People who use the imagination — filmmakers, newscasters, poets and artists — have to get better at describing the full scope of the problems, the real horror of what we are facing.

You argue in the book that the excessive use of air conditioning remains a major cause of global warming. How big a factor is it?

HFCs (which replaced CFCs after the ban) are an extremely potent greenhouse gas that could account for as much as 20 percent of global warming over the next 80 years. The Biden administration has just moved to ban their use. Doing so could prevent as much as 0.5C of warming in the next century. That’s a lot. Switching refrigerants is a technological change that needs to happen.

You write that our use of air conditioning is growing rapidly worldwide.

That’s right. The International Energy Agency says that mechanical cooling is expected to be the second largest source of global electricity demand growth after the industrial sector by 2050. They base this on the rise of the middle classes in three places — China, India and Indonesia. There was virtually no air conditioning in Shanghai and Beijing in the 1990s. Now most apartments in these cities are air-conditioned. It is the fastest rise in air conditioning use that the world has ever seen. But we can’t just blame them. In the U.S., we are not doing anything to tamp down our own use of air conditioning.

We can’t just stop using air conditioners can we?

The problem is the unthinking and 24/7 use of air conditioning, which is not necessary. You don’t need to keep it on in 80-degree weather. And there are a lot of other ways that you can mitigate the heat. But it takes some creative thinking and strategizing — we need to consider working less during the summer, using cross-ventilation in our homes, wearing different clothing, being more comfortable with sweating.

Shouldn’t we also be designing our buildings differently?

New buildings should consider installing low-energy, passive cooling systems. They should also be shaded. Studies show much higher mortality rates from heat in neighborhoods that don’t have lots of trees to shade them. We also need more public cooling strategies like cooling centers that people can go to during heat emergencies.

Better public cooling options sounds like a good idea. But is it realistic to expect that people will voluntarily use less air conditioning in their homes?

The increased use of air conditioners is making our world hotter, less stable, more prone to blackouts, more expensive. Is that really what we want? The comfort that we desire for ourselves is making the world paradoxically more uncomfortable; understanding this is a starting place.

How do we realistically cut down on our use of cooling?

It will take a cultural shift. We need to fight not just for ourselves, but for a global system that values the well-being of others and of the Earth. That means creating a world based on shared vulnerability and interdependence, rather than on (false) independence and competition.

How can people in climates such as Dubai and Arizona — these unbearably hot climates — reduce their air conditioning use?

Phoenix and Dubai are uninhabitable in the way we’re living in them now without A.C. Everything in Dubai is extreme, but perhaps the apex of its absurd designs was an attempt to air-condition one of its beaches. (The project was abandoned, I think.) To be clear, people did live in these places without A.C. for hundreds of years once upon a time, but their way of living hardly resembled the industrialized West’s. Before industrialization, those areas were sparsely populated, with nomadic ways of living that had accumulated centuries of wisdom on how to survive in such extreme environments. In the industrialized areas of the world, we traded that knowledge for a kind of technology that has ironically made those extremes more extreme.

I think the question we have to start asking is: Should these areas be as densely populated as they are and in the ways that they are? And if not, perhaps we have to consider what coastal cities are now considering in terms of sea level rise: managed retreat.

What do you say to people who argue that using less air conditioning would imperil our health?

There is such a thing as thermal monotony [living always at the same temperature], which can have averse consequences. Multiple studies show that people who don’t acclimate to the weather are more prone to end up in the hospital for heat-related illnesses. So dependence on nonstop air conditioning actually makes us more vulnerable, not less.

Are you hopeful that we will put a brake on climate change in time?

One thing that gives me hope is that there is a younger generation, Generation Z, coming in that understands not just the environmental crisis but also the economic crisis that they lived through. More regular people than ever recognize that business as usual is destructive and chaotic. They are asking, “How can we live differently?” They are imagining radically different worlds.