When a Heat Wave Is the Future, You Need Better Air-Conditioning

July 21, 2013

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Hundreds have died of heat exhaustion in the U.K. this summer. Pavement buckled across the eastern and central U.S. where a heat wave is broiling 21 states. Australia set new record high temperatures in their most recent summer. Anyone born after February 1985 has never lived through a month that was cooler than the 20th century’s global average.

The heat means higher demand for air conditioning, a technology that turned 111 this week. A-C ranges from a luxury to a necessity to a literal lifesaver: a recent study (Alan Barreca et al., Adapting to Climate Change: The Remarkable Decline in the U.S. Temperature-Mortality Relationship over the 20th Century) by American economists showed heat-related deaths in the U.S. dropped from roughly 3,600 per year to just 600 around 1960. That’s when A-C became widespread in homes and offices.

Of course, A-C eats a lot of energy. Cooling accounts for fully 40 percent of the electricity demand of a typical U.S. building. Which means our coolness relies on fossil fuel burning that ups CO2 pollution and warms the planet. To compound the problem, the liquids used for all this comfort—first chlorofluorocarbons and now hydrofluorocarbons—are super-strength greenhouse gases.

As A-C use spreads, cooling technology must become more environmentally-friendly and energy efficient. Otherwise, there’ll be no place to hide from the heat.

—David Biello

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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