Time Magazine: How to fix the "air conditioning problem"

Peter Haley

Here’s a subject that’s on the minds of a lot of Americans this month, particularly up in the pacific northwest. With temperatures breaking records, people have been scrambling to get air conditioning. People who have never needed it suddenly want it and people who have it want more of it. This has led the helpful folks at Time Magazine to publish a very long “explainer” about the history of modern air conditioning and why it’s a problem. The title is, “AC Feels Great, But It’s Terrible for the Planet. Here’s How to Fix That.”

That sounds promising, right? Because it’s true that the hydrofluorocarbons used in modern AC units aren’t great for the atmosphere and disposing of those annoying window-mounted AC units is a huge pain. So does Time offer us some promising new technology on the horizon to fulfill our 21st air conditioning needs? Allow me to save you some time because, again, that article is sadistically long. (And yes, I read the entire thing so you wouldn’t have to.) As I said, the article begins with the history of air conditioning and how it was originally invented for industrial purposes rather than personal cooling. It then steps through the various incarnations of cooling technology… at great length. Finally, at the very end, we get to the big reveal. What do we do about it? Here you go. (Emphasis added)

The troubled history of air-conditioning suggests not that we chuck it entirely but that we focus on public cooling, on public comfort, rather than individual cooling, on individual comfort. Ensuring that the most vulnerable among the planet’s human inhabitants can keep cool through better access to public cooling centers, shade-giving trees, safe green spaces, water infrastructure to cool, and smart design will not only enrich our cities overall, it will lower the temperature for everyone. It’s far more efficient this way.

To do so, we’ll have to re-orient ourselves to the meaning of air-conditioning. And to comfort. Privatized air-conditioning survived the ozone crisis, but its power to separate—by class, by race, by nation, by ability—has survived, too. Comfort for some comes at the expense of the life on this planet.

It’s time we become more comfortable with discomfort. Our survival may depend on it.

So there’s the answer. Air conditioning is on the climate change naughty list, so it needs to go. No, we’re not going to offer you a more climate-friendly way to cool your home. You just need to ditch your AC and get used to being hot and sweaty. For the good of the planet.

All I can say to the article’s author, Eric Dean Wilson, is… up your nose with a rubber hose, pal. (Younger readers may have to ask their parents about that reference.)

Now, for the more sane among you, we’re probably stuck with the sort of air conditioning we have now for the time being, but there are options. And necessity is the mother of invention, so we’ll need even more of them in the future. What we need is some technological breakthroughs in temperature control. We’re the sort of clever monkeys that have traditionally managed things like that, so hopefully, someone is working on it.

In the meantime, there are a couple of innovative ideas out there for home cooling that you might want to look into. One possibility might be to consider building a swamp cooler. (You can watch a video on how to build one for yourself.) It works on the principle of evaporative cooling and having one can cool off a room pretty effectively. The only problem is that you need to be in a relatively dry environment for it to work efficiently because it releases water vapor into the air. It’s great in the desert southwest, but if you are in an area where the humidity is already near maximum, it won’t do much for you.

I mostly wanted to point out the swamp cooler to remind you that science is full of all sorts of quirky and wonderful things. And humans invent new technology all of the time. We probably should be unsatisfied with current air conditioning technology and keep our eyes out for the next big breakthrough in that field. For the time being, however, if you really want to see an improvement that will be good for the planet and good for you as well, here’s an idea. Find a way to pressure the jerks at General Electric and all of the other manufacturers who make window air conditioners to make the freon system easily rechargeable. They do it for car air conditioners and for whole-house systems. But they make it nearly (not entirely) impossible to do on the small ones, so people wind up sending them to the landfill and having to buy new ones. And that’s not good for anyone.