Is Air Conditioning a Human Right? The New York Times Debates the Question

Air conditionerRefindweb/Screen capture

Air conditioning has been a hot topic on TreeHugger for years; the idea that we are cooking the planet to make electricity to push heat out of our houses is crazy at every level. Now the New York Times asks the question in their Room For Debate feature, asking in their Green blog Is Air-Conditioning a Basic Right?

They found two supporters of AC, an engineer, Ed Bosco, who calls AC a "necessary luxury", a contradiction in terms by definition. He claims:

The availability of air-conditioning allows architects to consider building geometries that were not possible when it was critical that everyone be seated near a window.

First of all that isn't true, there is such a thing as cross-ventilation. And fans. And what's so bad about requiring that people sit near a window? The Germans have it in their building code, it's a fine idea.

Then he goes on to note:

The Phoenix Cardinals now have an air-conditioned retractable-roof stadium, an indoor oasis that can be cooled below 80 degrees in a climate where the temperatures can exceed 100 degrees. This allowed the team to host preseason and opening weekend home games for the first time since moving to Arizona in 1988.

In what way is this progress? And why are people living in Phoenix? Because of air conditioning. Because everyone goes from their air conditioned car to their air conditioned house to now, their air conditioned stadium. And he thinks this is a good thing. Phoenix IS the problem.

Air Conditioning Company exec Richard Salmon starts off with

In the modern world, it is inconceivable to go to a swelteringly hot country without air-conditioning. Even the very thought of it makes us begin to sweat.

First of all, that is patently untrue. Lots of people go to lots of hot countries without AC. Lots of people don't have electricity, let alone electric cooling. Second of all, you are SUPPOSED to sweat. That's how your SUPPOSED to keep cool. He continues:

Office productivity rises significantly when the work environment has a steady, comfortable temperature; conversely, excessive heat and humidity result in significant drops in productivity. Most corporate decision makers would happily install air-conditioning to squeeze any additional profits from workers.

And many companies are building offices with opening windows, ventilation, fans and either no or just a very little AC. They are saving a fortune in energy costs.

The anti-AC brigade includes architect Steve Badanes, who summarizes five years of TreeHugger in his first paragraph of We've forgotten natural cooling

Our early ancestors avoided the heat by retreating into the cave or the shade of a tree, and engaging in strenuous activity only during the cooler or breezier part of the day. Early vernacular buildings developed using these universal principles, carefully orienting and shading buildings so that they gained heat in winter and were shady in summer, introducing thermal mass in dry climates, and in more humid ones using cross ventilation, porches, shutters, ceiling fans, solar chimneys and insulation.

He then channels Cameron Tonkinwise about AC making architects lazy and William Saletan about cooking the planet. I love his conclusion:

The time-tested passive strategies still work to reduce the need for cooling, and modern technologies like photovoltaics, daylight integrated lighting and smart controls can bridge the gap to a more sustainable future.

Rajendra Shende, former head of the UN Ozone Program, has actually lived without AC. He writes Let’s Not Let A.C. Turn Us Soft

So what if most people don’t need air-conditioning, and most people get along fine without it? Isn’t access to A.C. a sign of progress? Happiness? Contented cool? Indeed, it is. Just like fatty foods taste good, and sitting in a car for even short trips is relaxing, and having an iPad makes us feel like we have the world at our fingertips. But these are not rights; they are luxuries, and they often make us soft.

Stan Cox wrote the book on AC, "Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer)" He calls it A Luxury the World Can’t Afford.

Having developed efficient cooling, we've designed homes, businesses and transportation systems that are completely dependent on it, while the resulting greenhouse emissions create the need for even more air-conditioning.

There are things that are basic human rights, and air is one of them. But people shouldn't have to pay to get it pumped through a machine because their home was so badly designed that they have no choice. That's why I have written Big Steps In Building: Make Natural Ventilation Mandatory and Stop Ignoring Orientation And Sun Control and Stop With the Glass Façades Already. Air conditioning is not a right, it is a waste.

Is Air Conditioning a Human Right? The New York Times Debates the Question
The Times asks "Is air-conditioning a modern-day right like clean water or the Internet, or an unsustainable luxury that we should give up or ration?"

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