Should you feel guilty for having an air conditioner?

A/C may cool us down, but it’s also contributing to increasing outdoor temperatures and harming our connection to each other and with nature.

Text — Gabrielle Anctil
Illustration — Marie-Élaine Grant

How do you sleep when it’s hot out?

As I write this, the thermometer has been flirting with 40 degrees for a few days already. At night, to beat the heat, I take over the living room — far from my boyfriend’s boiling hot body — where I sleep fitfully beneath the whirring blades of a fan.

I’m hot. But I’m not alone in this struggle.

A 2022 study in the magazine Cell found that the average person currently loses 44 hours of sleep (or 11 nights) each year as a result of heat waves.

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We sleep much better when the temperature is between 15 and 19 degrees celsius. And unfortunately things will only get worse in the coming years, as the climate crisis intensifies.

It’s not surprising, then, that air conditioners are growing in popularity across the planet. In 2020 there were 1.9 billion units across the world, with the majority in the United States and China. In Québec, two out of three people owned one in 2019.

I’ve had A/C since last summer. The machine came into my life at the same time as the rest of my boyfriend’s belongings when we moved in together. “I swear I’ll never use that thing!” I declared at the start. But, being far more affected by the heat than me, he ignored my protests and set up the unit in the window. His well-being trumped my environmental values. I didn’t argue further. Who am I to stop him from feeling comfortable?

In truth, it’s not just a preference; temperature affects our health. When the heat affects our sleep, for examples, it can lead to“reduced cognitive performance, diminished productivity, compromised immune function, adverse cardiovascular outcomes, depression, anger, and suicidal behavior,” according to the same article in Cell.

While the problem is serious, it’s nevertheless essential to see air conditioners as — at best — a crutch.

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These machines, though they feel like divine intervention during a heat wave, may be one of the most powerful symbols of the way our behaviour continues to harm the planet. They overconsume power, displace the problem onto our neighbours, release excessive greenhouse gases into the air, and upset the relationship of our bodies to the environment.

I love you, A/C
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The heat has many victims. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2050, it may cause the death of more than 255,000 people across the world. In this context, our attachment to the potentially life-saving effects of air conditioning is as understandable as it is complex.

Invented in 1902, the air conditioner, which works something like a refrigerator in reverse, was designed to resolve the problems of a New York printer. It was used to suppress moisture that was deforming the paper and compromising the process of colour printing. The machine soon became widespread in factories whose processes also depended on temperature control. The well-being of employees was an accidental side effect.

Today, air conditioners have radically transformed our cities, and our lives. They have also formed a strong dependency. Overuse of A/C deregulates our bodies to the point that we become less adapted to fluctuations in temperature. As spring arrives, the natural process that’s meant to occur is that our bodies get used to rising temperatures slowly and surely.

Someone who spends the summer inside, in cool air, will suffer more from a heat wave, since they haven’t become adapted to climatic variations.

A simple solution would be to stop transforming the places where we live and work into iceboxes, minimizing the gap between interior and exterior. And when the intense heat is over, why not turn off the A/C altogether?

We could get back in touch with the movements of summer, enjoy the breeze, hear the birds courting each other, smell the wafts of lilac. We could savour the variety of days.

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One of the things I love most about summer is feeling like I practically live outside, windows wide open, hands covered in dirt after weeding the garden. Air conditioning makes me feel like I live in a sanitized, predictable world, where each day is the same as the last.

Glug glug glug
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Every second, ten air conditioners are sold around the globe and, according to an estimate from the International Energy Agency, this number will remain steady for the next 30 years. These humming machines now represent 5 per cent of the electricity bill in Québec households, and 10 per cent of global electricity consumption, a figure that will likely triple by  2050.

In Québec, with a growing number of vehicles, and large swathes of the industrial sector going electric, current levels of energy production will not be enough. We can expect to see more windmills sprouting up, and perhaps even new dams — along with the environmental consequences these large-scale projects involve.

The refrigerant substances that cool our houses are also greenhouse gasses 1000 to 3000 times more powerful than CO2. Poor maintenance or careless dismantling of the device at its end of life frees these gasses into the atmosphere. “Their direct leakage into the atmosphere counts for about 3 per cent of U.S. emissions,” reported Time Magazine in 2022.


Separate spaces

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Of all the negative effects of air conditioners, the most insidious is probably the impact they have on the social fabric of the city.

Famous urbanist Jane Jacobs understood the importance of active communities when she published her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In it, Jacobs describes the “sidewalk ballet” in her New York neighbourhood, where “where people of different races and income levels mixed together without conflict,” and where security is ensured by the multiple sets of “eyes on the road.” It’s a fairly intuitive concept: these eyes are those of the aging couple who rock gently on their front balcony, those of a parent whose children are playing on the sidewalk while they make dinner with the window open.

Air conditioners upset this important balance. Units must often be placed inside a window frame, blocking the view. From the outside, the animated street gradually gives way to a row of humming, sometimes dripping machines, often without a single human being in sight. You’ll be tempted to get one yourself simply to drown out the irritating noise from the neighbours’ A/C.

A study conducted in Phoenix, Arizona calculated that the heat given off by air conditioners increased the outside temperature at night by at least 1 degree celsius. This can be added to the additional 10 degrees C that “heat islands” can generate in a city, as compared to the country. Jacobs’s aging couple stays inside from now on, the parent takes their kids to the movies rather than watching them play outside.

By eroding the social fabric, air conditioners compromise our capacity to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable at the hottest points of the year.

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Isolation has been identified as an aggravating factor for mortality risk during heat waves like the ones in Chicago in 1995 and Paris in 2003. Social connection represents an important safeguard for the vulnerable.

Cool air on demand
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So what do we do? Should we feel guilty for buying a device that improves our comfort level?

Of course not. Heat poses a particular danger for elderly people and children, and people with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart conditions are also particularly at risk. In these cases, air conditioning should be considered an essential need.

The rest of us need to learn moderation. Time published an exhaustive list of alternatives to make the heat more tolerable: “cold showers, well-placed fans that encourage vigorous cross-breezes, opening windows at strategic places in an apartment or house, drawing curtains or shades when direct sunlight hits windows, avoiding alcohol and hydrating, unplugging necessary appliances that may generate heat, learning to distinguish between heat discomfort and danger, connecting with isolated neighbors, sleeping with wet socks pointed at a fan, and many more.”

Only once we’ve exhausted this bag of tricks, and tried to expand our tolerance, should we start to consider an air conditioner.

 

And in our critical approach, maybe it’s also time to start thinking of air conditioning beyond the level of personal choice, at the level of a collective societal problem. The architecture and urbanism of our cities takes for granted that we’ll have access to this machine to regulate the temperature in our buildings. The very existence of air conditioners justifies buildings that are completely disconnected from the climate.

Pierre Magnière, author of the book La climatisation naturelle pour une architecture contemporaine, deplores it. “Today, when we want a cool building, we build it however we want and ask the refrigeration specialist to add an air conditioner,” he writes.

Many alternatives exist, in the form of building techniques that help conserve coolness. As early as the 5th century, writings from Persian poet Nasir Khusraw Safarnama mentioned badguirs, literally “wind-catchers.” These towers allowed people to direct cool breezes toward the interior of houses and to reduce temperatures by as much as 10 degrees.

Today, architects compete in inventiveness to imagine buildings adapted to the climate. The results could be transformative: with enough will and imagination, cities of tomorrow could bring back breezy porches and fountains whose evaporation contributes to cooling the street around them.

Our houses could be oriented so as to have the evening wind blow through them. We could draw inspiration from warmer countries, where architecture has been adapted to the heat for centuries. Above all, we must not forget the importance of greenery to reduce heat islands.

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The key step is changing our habits. We can learn from the example of innovative institutions in our own community, like the five primary schools in Québec who recently tested the idea of holding classes outside when it was too hot. We must pressure our representatives to invest much more in public spaces that share their cool with diverse communities, like libraries and splash pads. And when will the idea of the afternoon siesta in the peak heat of summer finally take root in North America? Why not get really creative and bring back decorated fans, like ladies of the court in 17th century Japan?

In all our visions of a better future, air conditioners should only be a step in our process toward cities that are greener and better designed. As British architectural critic Rowan Moore says, “environmentally speaking, air conditioning is anti-social […] a perfectly neoliberal technology.”

Our summers are getting hotter and hotter. Air conditioning represents an essential remedy to get through the difficult days ahead. But we have to start imagining a world in which it will be only a tool for extreme situations. We must avoid falling into the trap of unnatural coolness, which threatens our connection to each other and to nature.

Gabrielle Anctil is an independent journalist. Her articles have been published in Québec science, BESIDE, and Continuité. She appears regularly on the radio program Moteur de recherche, as well as on the airwaves of Savoir média, on the program La bataille pour la forêt. Gabrielle is the author of the essay Loger à la même adresse, published with éditions XYZ. Winter or summer, she can be found, rosy-cheeked, riding her bicycle.

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