Why European homes (usually) don’t have air conditioning

A pedestrian in London on July 20. (Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

As temperatures in Britain soared to an alarming high of 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) this week, some residents resorted to simple, timeworn measures to try to cool down. They waved handheld fans, wetted towels and reached for the ice.

But for others, it was time for a change. Amid the record-breaking heat, they stood ready to embrace what many in Europe have long dismissed as an unnecessary luxury and a planet-destroying menace: air conditioning.

The energy-intensive cooling system used widely across the United States has grown increasingly attractive to Britons and other Europeans now dealing with brutal summer temperatures caused in part by human-induced climate change. In recent days, extreme heat has scorched much of Western Europe, kindling wildfires in France, Greece and Italy and causing the deaths of more than 1,000 people in Portugal alone.

Sales of portable air-conditioning units rose 2,420 percent in a week, British retailer Sainsbury’s said Monday. And a surge in demand for centralized AC units in London has some installation companies booked through the fall.

But why weren’t European households already equipped with air conditioning? And will Europe fall victim to a “U.S.-style addiction to AC,” as climate control researcher Stan Cox has warned?

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