When Secretary of State John F. Kerry was in Austria's capital Vienna recently to join discussions on climate change, chances were low that he encountered too many air conditioned rooms.
To Americans used to cooler rooms in summer, this may just have been a simple cultural difference. For the climate negotiators, however, it most likely reflects a bigger divide between the U.S., Europe, and developing economies. Both Europe and North America are worried about some of the gases that are emitted from fridges and air conditioners. But apart from those concerns, European nations in particular are also looking with growing anger and skepticism at the United States' heavily reliance on air conditioning.
"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 United Kingdom, Italy, and the entire continent of Africa," said Stan Cox, a researcher who focuses on indoor climate controlling. Within the next 80 years, global electricity consumption is expected to rise by more than 80 percent due to more air conditioning, and an increased use of fridges and fans.
Rapidly growing use of air conditioning and fridges has already led to more energy consumption. Perhaps even more worrisome, it has also increased emissions of so-called HCFC gases that are known to fuel climate change. Kerry was in Vienna last Friday to help find an agreement to limit their international use — and he made clear that it was not a laughing matter.
"Yesterday, I met in Washington with 45 nations — defense ministers and foreign ministers — as we were working together on the challenge of Daesh, ISIL, and terrorism," Kerry said, referring to the Islamic State group.
"It’s hard for some people to grasp it, but what we — you — are doing here right now is of equal importance because it has the ability to literally save life on the planet itself," he said, referring to climate change in general and the hope to curb the use of HCFC gases in particular. About 90 percent of those gases are used in fridges or air conditioning systems.
"The concern is that if the world doesn’t transition away from HCFCs, that will cause problems because the developing world, including China and India, are poised — as they develop and as the climate warms — to become enormous markets for air conditioners and other uses of these chemicals," said Anthony Leiserowitz, the Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
While the U.S. and Europe agree that HCFCs should be phased out and replaced by less damaging gases, Europeans believe Americans should also do more to lower their reliance on air conditioning. While American demand for air-conditioning has continuously increased over the past decades, Europeans have started to think about alternatives.
To be fair, summers in Vienna and northern Europe in general can hardly be compared to the hot, humid mess of a summer in Washington D.C. and many other American cities.
Advocates of air conditioning cannot only be found in the U.S.: Lee Kuan Yew, a former prime minister of Singapore, called air conditioners the greatest invention of the last century. Studies suggest that in hotter countries, air conditioning can increase workers' productivity and make the countries richer.
But in the long term, they are a danger and for European critics, its not so much the presence of air conditioning in the United States, but its over-use.
Visitors to the U.S. often complain that Americans set their room temperatures way too low — making life more difficult for themselves, and for the world. "When friends from abroad or family from India have come to visit, they've been shocked by how cold we keep our homes, offices, classrooms, and shops," said Nikita Perumal, an American Fulbright grantee who researches human rights-based approaches to climate change. Anyone who has ever toured the U.S. during summer with European tourists might have had the same experience.
Those observations are based on actual science: Most Americans prefer an average temperature of 70 degrees, according to earlier studies. But Europeans would consider such temperatures too cold. That's because Europeans are simply used to warmer indoors temperatures.
"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," Michael Sivak from the University of Michigan told The Washington Post last year.
Many experts say that this makes hardly any sense, and Americans should adapt.
"The temperature range that people find comfortable depends on the temperatures they have experienced in preceding days or weeks," said Cox. "If local high temperatures have been, say, around 70, then we feel most comfortable in the 70s indoors. If we've experienced highs of, say, 90, we may feel more comfortable in the mid-70s to the mid or upper 80s. But today we have whole populations that can go for weeks without experiencing any warm or hot temperatures, other than dashing across hot asphalt from the car to the office and back. How to start the adaptation process? That's a hard one."
Europe has tried to come up with answers that might be worth copying. Work spaces now need to be built energy-efficiently, according to E.U. legislation. Brick walls, for instance, can prevent rooms from getting too hot naturally.
"People are looking at a variety of solutions, including better building designs that don’t require as much air conditioning, as well as reducing waste energy overall," said Leiserowitz.
Right now, the trend in architecture to facilitate the kind of air conditioning that foreign visitors often associate with a meat locker is to build hermetically sealed, low ceiling offices without external balconies that some have criticized for being claustrophobic.
A more energy efficient approach would involve larger spaces, higher ceilings and natural flows of air that could both cool the office and make for a more enjoyable work environment.
So, next time you feel stressed because your work place is too loud and fresh air is just too far away — perhaps blame air conditioning.