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AC: It's not as cool as you think

Artificial cooling has had a profound effect on how, and where, we live and work.

July 18, 2010|By Stan Cox

Air conditioning buildings and cars in the United States has the climate impact of half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. That exceeds the total annual carbon dioxide emissions of any one of these nations: Australia, France, Brazil or Indonesia. In an effort to reduce energy use and curb greenhouse emissions, industry and government are pursuing more efficient cooling technologies for cars and buildings. But greater efficiency can't reverse the unsustainable living, working and transportation patterns that air conditioning has helped foster.

Greener building designs that favor natural ventilation will help, but in the millions of existing homes, workplaces and schools that we'll be using for decades to come, the most important adjustment will be not in our thermostats but in our own comfort expectations.

Businesses can help. Studies find that the majority of office employees are already dissatisfied with their workplace temperature, and that the most important improvement employers can make is to give workers more control over windows, shades, air movement, clothing, position and location.

The key to reducing the impact of mobile air conditioning is to keep as many cars as possible at home and switched off. That will mean restructuring cities and suburbs as pedestrian havens, discouraging car travel (and keeping cities cooler) by replacing parking lots with parks, and launching a crash expansion of inexpensive, convenient and cool mass transportation.

In other words, we need to back out of the ecological dead-end alley we've been traveling down for half a century. It won't be easy. With air conditioning so thoroughly integrated into American society, we're going to have trouble finding reverse gear. But it's there.

Stan Cox is the author of, most recently, "Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer)."

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