On the off chance that you didn’t already have enough to worry about, there’s another villain on the loose that’s trying to destroy the world through climate change. This time it isn’t the oil and gas industry, cars with internal combustion engines, or the farting of cattle on beef ranches. The culprit in this case can be found right in the homes of virtually everyone reading this. It’s your refrigerator. Well, not your specific refrigerator. Everyone’s refrigerators. In fact, all cooling technology of every sort that is currently in use, unless you’re in the habit of harvesting ice from a lake and saving it for the summer.
That’s the message being brought to us by David Owen in a lengthy column at The New Yorker this week. He begins by taking the reader for a stroll down memory lane to the days when commercial ice harvesters would cut blocks of ice out of lakes and ship them around the world to provide cooling for food storage over the summer. That industry died out when it was replaced by the advent of modern refrigerators and freezers, along with modern air conditioning. So what does this have to do with climate change? Owen argues that the advent of this technology created a negative feedback loop. Climate change makes it warmer outside, so we need more cooling indoors for both our food storage needs and our comfort. But the technology behind such cooling units works by moving warmer air from inside to the outside, making the outdoors warmer. Refrigerators and air conditioners also allegedly eat up a large chunk of the electricity used globally, most of which is still produced by burning fossil fuels. To finish the hat trick, refrigeration systems use hydrofluorocarbons, a powerful greenhouse gas that can leak out.
After covering all of that ground, Owen gets down to the meat of the issue (which I assume is not frozen). As he points out below, no solution to cooling is an acceptable one because every approach produces more climate problems than it solves. The fact is that the better or more efficient our technology becomes, the more of it we use. So, you see, it’s not really the refrigeration that’s the problem. It’s the selfish people that are.
The I.E.A. says that if we successfully implement what it calls an “Efficient Cooling Scenario,” by optimizing the energy efficiency of our cooling machines, we could save almost three trillion dollars by 2050. If we really do that, though, we will have three trillion to spend on something else, and whatever we spend it on will inevitably have climate consequences of its own. The history of civilization is, in many ways, the history of accelerating improvements in energy efficiency. Extracting greater value from smaller inputs is how we’ve made ourselves rich; it’s also how we’ve created the problem that we’re now trying to address with more of the same.
Making useful technologies more efficient makes them cheaper, and as they become cheaper we use them more and find more uses for them, just as adding lanes to congested highways makes driving more attractive, not less. In 2011, the D.O.E.’s forecasters presumably didn’t anticipate that improvements in energy efficiency would make it increasingly economical to power and cool the server farms that mine and manage cryptocurrencies. The correlation between growth in efficiency and growth in consumption is not accidental.
So you see, sports fans, the real problem here is your stubborn belief that you actually need refrigeration. And for the good of the climate you should just do without it, otherwise we’re all going to die or something. This is the same alarmist demand that we previously saw coming from the usual list of suspects when Vox declared that it was time we “reconsidered” air conditioning in the name of “cooling justice.” (No, I’m not even making that up.) Time Magazine followed suit last summer, declaring that it’s time we “become more comfortable with discomfort” and do away with private air conditioning, reserving it for public spaces.
Even if we were to entertain such an idea (and we’re not, by the way), there would first have to be a fundamental transformation of how we process, package, and store food. That solution would no doubt produce even more climate problems, I’m sure. As far as the air conditioning goes, a complete reorientation of lifestyle and personal sensibilities would need to take place unless these geniuses are envisioning some authoritarian mandate banning air conditioning except for those who “deserve” it.
Going that route, somebody will have to go first and light the way, right? Don’t look to David Owen to lead the charge, though. At the end of the column, he admits that he and his wife just installed a new “modern four-zone air-conditioning system” in their house. Why? Because they’re getting older and the summers are getting hotter, leaving them susceptible to “heat-related health problems.” Hey, David… suck it up, pal. It’s for the good of the planet, right? If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.