Opinion What do we do when air conditioning is a matter of life and death?

(Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)
(Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)

Every summer, after consecutive 90-degree days defeat my tolerance for discomfort and I finally hit the power button on my window unit, I utter this grateful refrain:

Air conditioning is the greatest invention of all time.

In 1902, an engineer named Willis Carrier invented what he called an “apparatus for treating air” to control the humidity at a printing press (paper: so sensitive). Soon this invention spread to movie theaters, factories, offices and department stores, and eventually, with the advent of the window unit in the late 1930s, to homes. Today it helps me sleep when nights get hot and sticky.

This is not a privilege I take lightly. We didn’t have air conditioning in my childhood home, an old Virginia farmhouse. On summer nights, my sister and I would fight over the angle of the oscillating fan pointed toward our sweaty beds.

To me back then, home air conditioning was a sign of wealth. My father was a modestly paid professor at a public university, but his father was a doctor whose home in Montgomery, Ala., was ice cold. When we visited in the summer, I marveled at how my bare legs goose-bumped on contact with my grandparents’ leather chairs; in my house they would have stuck, damply. This was the good life, as sure a sign of social class as their country club membership and their second home.

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I thought of those luxurious goose bumps when I read a recent report on the prison system in Texas — one of 13 Southern states whose prisons lack universal air conditioning. The study revealed that temperatures inside prisons regularly reached 110 degrees, and in at least one prison exceeded 149 degrees.

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Those temperatures are shocking and cruel. But even in a country where 88 percent of homes use air conditioning, it’s not unusual for people to suffer from extreme heat. Certain people, that is. Lower-income Americans are much less likely than wealthier ones to have air conditioning and more likely to live in hotter, urban areas without shade — with potentially deadly consequences.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, extreme heat caused more than 3,000 deaths between 2018 and 2020. And no, it’s not just your imagination: The number of extremely hot days is rising.

Which means that air conditioning is no longer a symbol of the good life. It’s now a matter of life and death.

What turned air conditioning into a necessity? Well, in part, air conditioning did. Carrier’s brilliant invention made it possible for Americans to live in places where it’s too hot to live without it.

Phoenix, our hottest city, endured 53 days above 110 degrees and suffered more than 300 heat-related deaths in 2020. But Phoenix exists as a major American city only because the popularization of air conditioning after World War II spurred a population explosion there — from fewer than 250,000 in 1950 to more than 4.5 million in 2022. That’s millions of people living somewhere that, by design, requires them to find a way to stay cool to survive.

If that were the only problem — and if everyone had equal access to lifesaving air conditioning — that would be just a crazy little American factoid.

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But it’s not the only problem. Simply put, the more we cool ourselves, the more we warm our planet.

One of the first common refrigerants in air conditioning, chlorofluorocarbons, both depleted the ozone layer and contributed to global warming. Now we use hydrofluorocarbons, which are less damaging to the ozone layer but still trap heat in our atmosphere at a far greater rate than carbon dioxide and methane. Even if we phase out HFCs, as governments are trying to do, and figure out how to build air conditioners without greenhouse gases, as the next generation of engineers is trying to do, they will still contribute to global warming if they use electricity produced by fossil fuels (which they are likely to do).

So the Earth gets hotter, producing greater demand for air conditioning, which makes the planet get hotter. Everyone — but especially people with fewer resources — will suffer for it.

Meanwhile, Americans use air conditioning with wasteful abandon. If you’ve ever worn a sweater indoors in the summer, you know what I mean.

So what to do?

We have to treat air conditioning like the necessity it’s become, making sure that everyone who needs it has access to it.

But we also have to treat air conditioning like the luxury it once was, using it only when we need it most — and sparingly when we do.

A few years ago, the federal Energy Star program recommended setting home thermostats to 78 degrees, a recommendation that was not well received. The consensus seemed to be that a warmer house wasn’t worth the savings on energy costs. But what if we thought of a little extra sweat as saving the planet — and ourselves — from the cost of energy?

At the very least, maybe we can start with one simple summer rule: no goose bumps.