Mother Gaia Likes it Hot

Tom Finnerty16 Jul, 2021 3 Min Read
All hail the Wicker Man.

If you've noticed that the greens are in an especially reverent mood of late, it is because the holiest months of their neo-pagan religion are now upon us. What we call summer is referred to semi-officially in their calendar as "Air Conditioning Antipathy Season," and it is traditionally celebrated with the proliferation of various and sundry bits of anti-A/C propaganda whose object is to berate the unenlightened among us for preferring not to be roasted alive from June through August.

Time Magazine recently released a perfect example of this pious genre. Written by Eric Dean Wilson, author of the unpleasant sounding "After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort," the piece begins by mentioning the heatwave that hit the Pacific Northwest last month, with temperatures far exceeding 100ºF and department stores predictably running out of A/C units.

"Unfortunately," Wilson asserts, dutifully, "air-conditioning is part of what’s causing the unusual heatwave in the first place." He then walks us through the supposedly disreputable history of air conditioning, which he says contributed to socio-economic divides (because it was initially prohibitively expensive), was a marker of structural racism (because southern whites got it first), and, more recently, contributed to a near environmental calamity, namely the depletion of the ozone layer which was related to the use of chlorofluorocarbons as refrigerants.

One of the reasons folks used to go to the movies. (YouTube)

The article is strange reading for outsiders, as is often the case with religious texts. The race and class references seem awkwardly inserted, perhaps to appease other factions within their broad church. But there are some difficult-to-comprehend passages even within the purely environmental sections.

For instance, you'd think the fact that CFCs were banned in 1987 and have been largely replaced by the much more environmentally friendly hydrofluorocarbons (or HFCs) would be a relief for Wilson, but you'd be wrong. While HFCs don't deplete the ozone layer they still contribute to global warming, he says, as does air conditioning generally, simply because it uses energy.

But if "thou shalt avoid excess energy" is just part of their decalogue, air conditioning is an odd target. As Megan McArdle explained in Bloomberg a while back," Americans still expend much more energy heating their homes than cooling them." This might seem surprising, but it makes sense upon reflection:

The difference between the average temperature outside and the temperature that is comfortable inside is generally only 10 to 20 degrees in most of America, for most of the summer. On the other hand, in January, the residents of Rochester, New York... need to get the temperature up from an average low of 18 degrees (-8 Celsius) to at least 60 or 65. That takes a lot of energy.

Heating homes often seems natural in a way cooling them does not, but this is illogical. Both extremes can (and do) kill people every year. Moreover, McArdle points out that one of the environmental benefits of air conditioning is that it has enabled Americans to progressively move in the direction of the sunbelt, where heating needs in winter are minimal, meaning that less energy overall is used in regulating temperature.

In any event, Wilson's own solution to the  "problem" suggested in his piece is not for his co-religionists to move south, but rather to drastically reduce the amount of A/C used by both elect and reprobate alike. This he would apparently accomplish by banning home air conditioners and having us all become "more comfortable with discomfort." If A/C is allowed to remain legal, it should be available only at "public cooling centers" where, presumably, rich and poor alike can gather joyfully together to gather together to avoid the scorching heat.

If you can't take the heat...

This seems about as realistic to me as the idea that there was a soul-saving spaceship following the comet Hale–Bopp -- how well would those public cooling centers have worked in, for instance, Portland, Ore., when the mercury hit 112º? More than likely people would have rioted to get in and to stay in.

But I guess that (apocryphal) St. Thomas Aquinas line holds true here -- "For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible." Happy A/C Antipathy season to our devout readers.

Tom Finnerty writes from New England and Ontario.

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