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A future without air conditioning is becoming harder to imagine

Gabriel C. Pérez

At this moment in Texas, it is difficult to imagine living without air conditioning. Most parts of the state are stuck in a streak of triple-digit temperatures with no end in sight. AC is, literally, a lifesaver. And the number of people worldwide who use it is expected to grow, especially in places like China and India.

There’s a contradiction inherent in air conditioning, though: The more we use it, the more we help heat the planet. Climate watchers like Stan Cox have long called to wean ourselves off AC, or at least reduce our reliance on it. Cox is a fellow at The Land Institute and the author of “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer).”

Cox spoke to the Texas Standard about whether a future with less air conditioning is still possible.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: To what extent does air conditioning itself contribute to global warming?

Stan Cox: Air conditioning kicks off kind of a vicious cycle in which our greenhouse gas emissions make summers become warmer, so we use more air conditioning. And then by burning more energy for air conditioning and the refrigerants from air conditioning, which are greenhouse gases, we’re guaranteeing that future summers will be even hotter.

Is air conditioning here to stay, or do you see a time in which we we might actually be able to do without it?

Unfortunately, it probably is. Back 15 years ago when I wrote this book about air conditioning, I argued that certainly we need it for heat emergencies, but that the routine lavish use of air conditioning and commercial spaces and houses is excessive, and especially in this country. But it’s getting harder and harder each year to make that argument.

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What technologies or techniques do you have in mind to make better use so that there’s not this sort of profligate use of AC? 

It’s really going to take an overhaul of our built environment: to tear up parking lots, tear up streets, make it hard to drive in urban areas, but to plant trees and grass there, to plant green roofs on buildings and to adjust our selves to the temperature. Because when we’re in continuous air conditioning, it lowers our heat tolerance. Being exposed to warmer temperatures actually makes us more tolerant of higher temperature.

We’ve become over the past 60 years people not worrying about not being in that optimum temperature range in the 70s to a place where now it’s considered a necessity. People for millennia have gotten by in hot climates without air conditioning, so it’s not like we can’t do it. Although if we keep emitting greenhouse gases the way we are and we keep seeing temperatures rise so fast, then, you know, there’s not much you can do about it.

» MORE: With sweltering heat ongoing, how is Texas’ grid and energy industry faring?

Let me ask you about something that I think a lot of folks who work days think about as they leave their house in the summer. Do you turn off all of your AC, come home to a house that’s rather hot, then crank up your AC to try to get it back to not as hot as it has been? Or is it a more efficient use of energy and perhaps more environmentally sound to bring the temperature up in your house and then bring it back down when you get home, or just leave it at one constant temperature all the time?

With central air conditioning in a large house, certainly the idea of leaving the air conditioning off all day on a really hot day and then coming home and turning it on is going to use a lot of electricity. And I’m not an expert in these things, but probably having the thermostat automatically switch between daytime and nighttime settings.

In most countries other than the U.S., central air conditioning is not really all that common. There will be what are called split ACs that are in certain rooms of the house, and they are turned on only when the space is occupied and only during times when it’s uncomfortable. In that case it will very quickly cool that one room down and then only have to keep a much smaller volume of air cool.

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