Yes, Air Conditioning Is a Basic Necessity

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Oh, the joys of air conditioning! . (Photo: Fedders advertisement)

Air conditioning has never been considered as necessary as heating; building codes generally insist on the latter but not the former. In fact, there are lots of environmentalists and others who distain AC; as Daniel Engber wrote in Slate:

A certain class of Americans — let's call them the brrr-geoisie — has come to see the air conditioner as a stand-in for everything that's wrong with the country and the world.

I was a card carrying member of the brrr-geoisie. I used to write on TreeHugger that there were many ways to beat the heat without it, including the use of fans, using cross-ventilation, planting trees to keep cool with culture, to live like they do in Barcelona with dinner at 10 at night. I wrote in Treehugger that we had to design "our cities and towns so that we don't need cars and our homes so they don't need air conditioning."

AC is a necessity
Who says AC is a luxury?. (Photo: Lennox ad 1955)

But my views have changed over the last few years. I've learned we're never going to get people to buy into the green movement if being miserable is the price of admission. And I've learned that you can design a well insulated house that doesn’t need much air conditioning to be comfortably cool.

But most importantly, I've learned how many more people — particularly older people — die from heat inside their homes than die from cold (and that's usually outside the home.) In 2012, 84 Americans died from the heat in houses without AC; only eight died from extreme cold, all outside.

In France, where people think air conditioning is unhealthy and few people have it, almost 15,000 elderly people died in the 2003 heat wave. In California in 2006, the death rate increased by 5 percent, a total of 582 excess deaths.

I've also watched how much my late mother-in-law and mother relied on air conditioning, and they both lived in a very temperate Toronto. I've also realized how lucky and spoiled I am, to have been able to buy a nice old cross-ventilated house with a big tree in front. It’s easy for me to talk and write.

And inevitably, as the climate warms and the population ages, there will be more heat waves and more people dying. Salvatore Cardoni writes in TakePart:

"The heat is not just an inconvenience, it kills — some of the most heat-vulnerable people are 65 and older," says Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The numbers of these seniors in the U.S. are increasing at the fastest pace in a century. There are now 40 million seniors in the U.S. — that’s going to be 72 million by 2030."
This is a terrible graphic, but what a great program. (Photo: Liheap)

Some elderly people have had to make the choice between food or energy. That dire fact led to a program designed to help them: the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program or LIHEAP, which was created in 1980. The program has been heavily biased toward heating rather than cooling, probably because as Daniel Engber of Slate put it, "If you’re poor and shivering, help is on the way. If you’re poor and sweaty, you’ll have to suck it up." But as it gets hotter and more people live in hotter parts of the country, this will have to change.

Or more likely, neither will get help, because under the budget proposal put forward by President Donald Trump, LIHEAP will be eliminated. The budget document explains that, "compared to other income support programs that serve similar populations, LIHEAP is a lower-impact program and is unable to demonstrate strong performance outcomes." Arthur Delaney of Huffington Post calls it "Trump’s coldest cut":

About 6 million households are expected to get heating or cooling assistance from LIHEAP this year at a cost of $3.3 billion, or 0.2 percent of discretionary spending. The program also helps people weatherize their homes, and it provides a pot of money specifically for crises, such as a broken heater in winter or an imminent utility shutoff.

Those in Congress who would kill LIHEAP think the federal government spends too much on anti-poverty problems that should be dealt with at the state level. One Republican think-tanker noted that "each of these programs is treated by the left as a beachhead, so if we’re subsidizing energy costs, then it must go on forever."

But many living in poverty are old. Many Americans do not like so-called entitlements and would happily kill off food stamps and cut welfare and health insurance for the poor. But politicians still pay lip service to helping seniors, the elderly and keeping Medicare, social security and drug plans; these are the people who voted them in. Heating and yes, in many parts of the country, cooling, are necessary to live. Killing LIHEAP may well kill some of their constituents and will certainly anger many more.