by Judith Curry
This post is motivated by predicted by a high temperature forecast of 105 F today in Reno, NV.
I came across this article in the Boston Globe, titled How to live without air conditioning. Excerpts:
Today, almost 90 percent of American households have an air conditioner—as do the vast majority of restaurants, stores, museums, and office buildings. During weeks like the one we’ve just had, these places are sanctuaries: To walk into one after being outside is to be reminded how sweet life can be.
But all that magic chilling comes at a cost—something most people are aware of on a personal level, because their electricity bills are so high during the summer, but not so much on a global scale, which is really where the problem lies. In China and India, air conditioning sales have reportedly been growing by 20 percent per year; around the world, air conditioning energy demand is projected to increase vastly over the next decades. According to Stan Cox, author of the 2010 book “Losing Our Cool,” air conditioning in the United States already has a global-warming impact equivalent to every US household driving an extra 10,000 miles per year.
But although there are a handful of anti-A/C crusaders out there, the idea that we need to be using less of it hasn’t become a touchstone of environmental enlightenment, like recycling or hybrid cars. This may well be an indication of how deeply it has shaped our world: While we can imagine giving up plastic bags and Styrofoam, living without climate control seems unfathomable, especially during a heat wave.
The human body is surprisingly adaptable, and by weaving together techniques from the past, ideas from hot-weather countries, and new findings from building design experts about what people actually find comfortable, we can see a surprising portrait emerge of what life might look like if we decided we could no longer afford our addiction.
WHEN EXPERTS LOOK at A/C use in America, they immediately see a spot of illogic: We use vast amounts of energy just to let businesspeople do something they’d probably rather not do anyway. “We are probably overcooling our office buildings by 4 to 6 [degrees] F just so that office workers, particularly the males, can wear their business suits,” wrote Richard de Dear, who is head of architectural design science at the University of Sydney and a researcher on thermal comfort. “The current clothing behaviour is costing us a fortune in energy and greenhouse emissions!”
In Japan every summer, in an environmental initiative called “Cool Biz” that started in 2005, government officials encourage building managers to let temperatures climb to 82 degrees and advise employees to loosen their sartorial standards. In 2011, the government even put on a fashion show, with models catwalking in untucked polos, capri pants, and Kariyushis, a Japanese take on the Hawaiian shirt.
Here in America, it probably wouldn’t require such a hard sell. Many female workers already dress for summer weather, and would likely be delighted not to have to huddle in sweaters against the A/C. Among men, polos are already considered appropriate on casual Fridays, and it’s not hard to imagine that most would happily embrace a breezier style for the rest of the week.
Already, some of us live in homes that can be effectively cooled by opening windows in the basement and on the top floor every morning, thus taking advantage of the so-called stack effect to pull cool air up through the house and allow hot air to vent into the street. People can also try “evaporative cooling,” a modest, low-tech form of air conditioning, by hanging wet towels in the window or setting them in front of a basic electric fan.
On a more structural level, we can also build houses to offer extra protection against the heat, using principles ignored by most modern architects. According to William Cooper, a professor at Louisiana State University and the coauthor of a two-volume history of the American South, people with the means to do so used to construct homes that stood several feet above the ground, in order to get air circulating under the floor: “They had long halls through the middle of the house, so if you opened a door at each end, you got a breeze coming through, and you’d have windows on the sides so you’d get cross-ventilation.”
Southerners had other tricks, too. In a paper published in 1984 in the Journal of Southern History, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg historian Ray Arsenault lamented the disappearance of architectural traditions that together added up to “an ingenious conspiracy of passive cooling.” Some of those traditions, Arsenault said, could make a comeback in a post-A/C future. “We’d be paying a lot more attention to where our shade trees are,” he said, noting that Southerners would always try to plant theirs on the east and west sides of their homes, to protect from the rays of the rising and setting sun. Those who could afford to built their homes with wide eaves, awnings, and high ceilings, so that hot air could rise and float far above their heads.
But in some parts of the world, cultures have simply engineered their days around the climate: think of the Southern European and Latin American custom of leaving work for a midday siesta, and then coming back until evening before eating a late supper. In a 2004 essay published in ID Magazine, design writer Barbara Flanagan described living in Barcelona, with hardly any A/C, and explained how this created not just a unique schedule but a livelier civic culture, with people congregating in the proverbial public square every evening and staying out as late as they could.
THERE ARE SOME PARTS of life, it must be said, for which air conditioning is not just a luxury but a necessity. The Internet depends on servers that require climate control in order to not go up in flames. Modern skyscrapers depend on it, as well. If we gave up air conditioning, New England would largely be fine, at least for now, but entire swaths of the country would become uninhabitable: Summers in the Sun Belt cities and in parts of the South would be so harsh that millions of people would simply move away.
“If you have the ability to open or close a window, turn a fan on or off, change the blinds, modify your clothing—it just becomes a natural part of your day-to-day living, and you don’t build these expectations that conditions should be the same all day and all year round, which I would call ‘thermal monotony,’” said Gail Brager, an architecture professor at UC Berkeley who also worked on the study. “We not only accept—we actually prefer—a wider range of conditions that float with the natural rhythms of the outdoor climate.”
We’re not cartons of milk, after all; we will not spoil, even if we do sweat a little. In fact, by taking full advantage of the technology inside our own bodies—technology that makes it possible for us to adapt to a whole spectrum of temperatures—we might discover we’ve been missing out on a way of life that actually feels quite natural.
JC comments: The motivation for this article seems less about reducing emissions than about returning to a life style that is more congruent with your climate and better design of houses and other buildings for passive cooling.
Personally I’m not a big fan of home air conditioning. I’m having a hard time believing that 90% of U.S. households have an air conditioner: until I moved to Atlanta, none of my houses had air conditioning. When we moved to Atlanta, the realtor laughed when I was concerned that windows didn’t open: I was told that everyone had air conditioning and no one opened windows. Not only the heat and humidity, but the bad air quality and the noise. Wonderful. After living in Atlanta for over 10 years, I fully understand why air conditioning is needed (the humidity wilts everything and everyone), but I still prefer using fans to minimize the use of air conditioning.
In drier climates where I have lived or other wise spent a lot of time (e.g. Boulder CO, Santa Fe NM, Reno NV), I can get by without air conditioning by opening windows at night, pulling down shades during the day, planting shade trees, and making use of overhangs and portals. Today, where the temperature is already 103 F, I am compromising by having the air conditioning set at 84 F, with the fans turned on high. Perfectly comfortable.
I suspect that Americans aren’t going to sacrifice their comfort as long as they can afford to pay for it, but better design of houses and other buildings and following Japan’s CoolBiz initiative make a lot of sense. And in some urban areas, it seems the tradition to keep store front doors open (presumably to invite the public in) while cool air is pouring out from store (or heat, in the case of winter).
Air conditioning is not common in European residences. About 5 years ago we vacationed in Italy during a very hot spell; not only was there no air conditioners but no one seemed to have fans either. I would be interested in hearing your assessment of trends on A/C use in other countries.
So I echo sentiments of the author of this article: why haven’t environmentalists been pushing for less use of air conditioning?