cities | July 16, 2013

The Case for Air-Conditioning is Made of Hot Air: Eric Klinenberg in TIME

"If you can’t stand the heat, you should know that blasting the AC will ultimately make us all even hotter," climate change speaker Eric Klinenberg warns in TIME: "Today, Americans use twice as much energy for air-conditioning as we did 20 years ago, and more than the rest of the world’s nations, combined." He concludes: "As a climate-change adaptation strategy, this is as dumb as it gets." Klinenberg (author of Heat Wave and Going Solo) isn't against cooling down with artificially chilled air on scorching hot days. In fact, he even argues that air-conditioning can be a life-saver for the elderly, factory workers, and people who are vulnerable to the heat or are required to work in extremely hot temperatures for extended periods. AC has also been shown to bump productivity in the office.

The problem lies in the overuse of air-conditioning. Especially, he says, on days when it isn't really required. Or, in places where other cooling methods are available. "In most situations, the case for air-conditioning is made of hot air," he explains. And, he notes that "trying to engineer hot weather out of existence rather than adjust our culture of consumption for the age of climate change is one of our biggest environmental blind spots." Cities like New York have recently prohibited stores from pumping frosty air into the streets as a tactic to lure in customers. While that's certainly a step in the right direction, Klinenberg worries that most people won't be able to dial down the cold without an intervention.

Not only that, but Americans have come to expect that their indoor air will always be crisp. In doing so, they have influenced other countries around the world to desire the same. Our sub-zero preferences have caused energy consumption rates to spike—despite the fact that we desperately need them to decrease. If used conservatively, say, adjusting the room temperature to the mid-70s when fans and open windows aren't cutting it, the benefits can balance the damage done by AC units. But if we continue to demand Arctic temperatures in the midst of blaring summer heat, we may have a problem. In his insightful research, Klinenberg discusses wide-spread sociological and environmental trends affecting our cities. Whether it's the rise of solo living, or the need to reengineer our domestic life to adapt to climate change, Klinenberg's speeches are just as interesting as they are timely and practical.

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