By Marianne Lavelle
Just before word that heat
and toxic smog in Moscow had doubled the Russian capital’s daily death
rate to 700, I talked to author Stan Cox about health and air conditioning.
In his new book, Losing Our Cool:
Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World,
Cox delves into the dark side of cool living–from how air conditioning
has paved the way to overdevelopment of Florida and Arizona to how the
coal burned to lower our indoor temperature is making the planet hotter.
But I asked Cox about what seems the most difficult challenge to his
thesis; without air conditioning, in heat waves like the one gripping
Russia, people die. In Moscow, of course, it is clear that thick pollution
from wildfires (See Russian wildfire
is as big a factor as heat. But news stories make sure to mention that
in Russia, just as in the Europe heat wave of 2003 blamed for 35,000
to 52,000 deaths, few people have air conditioning as an escape from
the severity of the outdoors.
Cox agrees that the issue is
complex. “When it comes to health, air conditioning has a Jekyll and
Hyde quality,” he says. “It obviously is an important factor during
severe heat waves. So I try to be clear that I’m not saying, ‘Let’s
just cut air conditioning off to people.’” But he argues that air
conditioning can’t be considered in isolation from other socioeconomic
factors. “The people that tend to die in a heat wave–it’s not only
that they don’t have air conditioning or can’t afford to run it,”
says Cox. “They are generally living in an overall harsh environment”
of poverty and bad health.
Especially interesting is Cox’s
discussion of the 1995 Chicago heat wave, when more than 550 people
died–many of them without air conditioning. But far fewer people died
during longer and more intense Chicago heat waves of 1931 and 1936–long
before air conditioning had taken hold in U.S. homes. Cox cites research
by analysts at the Midwestern
showing that many factors were involved. People, especially the elderly,
had become more afraid of crime and reluctant to leave doors and windows
open or to sleep outdoors, as many did in the 1930s. “The analysts
went on to suggest that ‘many people have also forgotten how to live
and function with high temperatures,’” Cox writes.
Cox’s book challenges the
notion that health and air conditioning go hand-in-hand, with a look
at sickness from indoor air, at the connection between obesity and our
indoor lives, and at the malaise that Richard Louv called nature deficit
disorder in his 2005 book Last
Child in the Woods.
But Cox’s main disturbing point is that energy-intensive air conditioning
creates a vicious cycle in which more fossil fuel pollution ratchets
up temperatures even higher. (See Related: “Russia Fires, Pakistan
Many researchers are looking
at whether there is a way to deliver air conditioning with less energy.
Technology writer David LaGesse explores the most promising advances
this week in his story, “Seeking
to Cool Air Conditioning Costs,”
part of a special series of National Geographic news stories exploring
Great Energy Challenge.
found that it’s getting tougher to squeeze more efficiency from the
air conditioners in use today. But breakthroughs are on the horizon,
including a prototype developed at the National
Renewable Energy Laboratory
that would adapt the evaporative, or “swamp cooler” for moist climates.
More work is needed to make it commercial, but early indications are
that the approach could cut air conditioning energy needs up to 90 percent.
Until advances like NREL’s
become widely available, the best advice is not to take air conditioning
for granted and turn down the power when possible. And to learn more
about the energy that’s keeping your home, office or car cool, try
this Great Energy Challenge quiz: What
You Don’t Know About Air Conditioning.
Marianne Lavelle is energy
Previously, she spearheaded a project tracking climate legislation for
the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center
for Public Integrity.
She spent more than a decade as a senior writer at U.S. News and World
where she wrote the Beyond