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It’s time to rethink air conditioning

Air conditioning warms the planet. Here’s how to break a vicious cycle.

A vintage photo of a woman relaxing in front of a window-mounted air conditioner in her home. Debrocke/ClassicStock via Getty Images
Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate change for Vox. She was previously an environmental reporter at Mother Jones, Grist, and the New Republic. Rebecca also serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

What if the most American symbol of unsustainable consumption isn’t the automobile, but the air conditioner? In cool indoor spaces, it’s easy to forget that billions of people around the world don’t have cooling — and that air conditioning is worsening the warming that it’s supposed to protect us from.

There are alternatives: We can build public cooling spaces and smarter cities, with fixes like white paint and more greenery. Some experts have hailed heat pump technology as a more efficient option. But as the planet warms and more of its inhabitants have spare income, AC sales are increasing. Ten air conditioners will be sold every second for the next 30 years, according to a United Nations estimate. Access to air conditioning can literally mean life or death for the young, elderly, and those with medical conditions such as compromised immune systems.

The rise of ACs has an enormous cost: Over time, chemicals known as refrigerants leak out of AC units and accelerate climate change.

International treaties have tried to fix this. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol banned the production of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, that were rapidly depleting the ozone layer and damaging forests and croplands. The typical narrative is that as scientists sounded the alarm, the world came together and set binding targets for phasing out the chemicals. In doing so, we averted a catastrophic threat to life on Earth.

The chemicals that replaced CFCs are called hydrofluorocarbons. While HFCs don’t deplete the ozone, they are powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Phasing out HFCs, which are thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is one of the most critical actions the world can take this decade to curb climate change. Earlier this year, the United States belatedly signed the 2016 Kigali amendment, which extends the Montreal Protocol to almost entirely phase out HFCs over the next 30 years.

Eric Dean Wilson, the Brooklyn-based author of the book After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort, is skeptical that phasing out these chemicals will be easy. He’s concerned that a form of protection from a warming world should involve swapping out one chemical for another.

He also made a more radical argument that, in the United States and even around the world, a big cultural shift could lead to a more communal idea of cooling, instead of a retreat to our separately cooled homes. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why air conditioning is becoming a climate disaster

What drew you to writing about ACs?

It’s easier for us to understand climate violence in terms of things like hurricane damage or wildfires. They’re very spectacular. But what’s actually happening is a lot more tedious and really difficult to narrate.

I realized air conditioning was a way to get at the very material nature of the climate crisis — but in a way that is quite unspectacular, because the refrigerant is literally invisible to all the senses. The paradox is that we’re surrounded by air conditioning, but hardly anybody thinks about it.

What I hoped to do with the book was by tracing this history people could consider a radically different way of living, one that doesn’t have to be suffering. It can actually be pleasurable. I think a lot of people are too afraid to even try that because they think they have to give something up. I hope that it can open the door just a little bit for people to really re-contextualize what it means to be comfortable. I think there’s something to be said about making us a bit more comfortable with the discomfort of outside air.

The Montreal Protocol has been hailed as such a success at phasing out ozone-destroying CFCs that I didn’t even realize there’s still clearly a market for these chemicals in the United States.

The Montreal Protocol worked. It took years and years of revision, but it started with the international community coming together and deciding that this was a crisis, that they needed to act on it now. It wasn’t an easy win for international policy, but it was and remains the only international environmental treaty whose target emissions are legally binding.

The Montreal Protocol was a lot easier because it targeted a Western world. The ozone crisis was seen as targeting, first and foremost, white people (even though that narrative wasn’t actually true). The US government thought that because they banned production of CFCs, and most of the world was going to follow quickly behind, the supply of CFCs would run out by the year 2000. That didn’t happen. And there’s really no government program, still, to clean it up.

You profile Sam Schiller, who is in the business of tracking, reclaiming, and destroying this refrigerant, Freon, that is technically illegal to produce. What did his work tell you about the world’s mission now, to phase out climate pollutants in air conditioners?

Sam’s work reveals a huge gap in federal policy. The federal and international focus was on stopping production of a dangerous refrigerant. For a material like Freon-12 (CFC-12), which is what Sam was looking for, there’s a finite amount of it as material that is no longer produced. But there’s really no government program to clean it up. And once it’s been smuggled into the country, then it can be bought and sold legally.

It’s really difficult to actually destroy the refrigerant, or even contain it. And you can imagine why because you basically have to do what Sam did — which is to trawl the corners of the United States looking for this material God knows where.

And Sam deals with some hostility along the way while buying these refrigerants to destroy them safely — some people who distrust environmentalists and who don’t believe in climate change. What did you learn from him?

The last section of the book is about Sam’s relationship with “The Iceman,” a guy who was particularly hostile and also a big shot in the refrigerant reclaimer business. That section tells the story of Sam being told to get off his property because he was a “carbon guy” and that he didn’t want Sam to buy it if he was going to destroy it. Sam is bold enough to try to have a conversation with him, and he was able to convince the guy that there was no reason why he shouldn’t sell it to him.

Over the years, they got to be actually really good friends, and just before he died he told Sam that he had really changed his views. I think talking to those communities is sometimes seen as a lost cause and a waste of energy, and Sam didn’t see that.

Sam shows you need radical systemic change, but if you don’t have cultural change along with that, it’s many, many times harder to actually do it — and maybe even fails.

I’ve gotten death threats in my DMs from people, daring me to come to their house and take their air conditioner. The actions of the federal government or policymakers are going to be seen as an infringement on individual rights.

Air conditioning has a racist history and present

You cite New York City’s statistics that even though Black residents make up 22 percent of the population, they account for half of all the heat fatalities in the city. What are the ways we see racism play out in the disparities in air conditioning and cooling today?

From the very beginning, even before air conditioning’s invention, people who were enslaved in the 18th century were denied any cooling.

After World War II, the GI Bill famously gave mortgages to white homeowners and denied them to Black homeowners and basically anyone who wasn’t white. It was a lot easier for white homeowners to have access to cooling. So that left a huge gap, especially in the South, between Black homeowners and white homeowners.

It’s never really closed entirely. That is a huge issue in a city like New York, in working-class neighborhoods where there’s a higher percentage of Black and brown residents than there are white residents who are shut out from air conditioning. That’s because even people who can afford air conditioning may not be guaranteed they’ll have the energy to power them during a heat wave.

In a heat wave, because of the strain on the energy grid from climate disasters, a private, monopolized energy company will sometimes deliberately shut off the energy grid in order to preserve the integrity of the whole, and the neighborhoods that they choose to do that in are the ones that generate the least profit — which are usually working-class neighborhoods of color.

And then there’s the wealth disparity that we’re seeing, especially in developing countries: that air conditioning units have become a marker of class and sometimes ethnic divisions, of who can and cannot afford AC. That’s why an approach to cooling justice — ways to make sure that everyone has access — is super crucial because AC has really become a dividing tool.

“We don’t treat heat waves like the emergency they are”

We’re all thinking a lot about the safety of indoor spaces because of Covid-19. What strikes you about those debates given your research on cooling?

I had done all this research on what’s sometimes called the open-air battles of schools in the early 20th century, especially in New York. There were these really fierce ideological divisions between people who thought that school rooms should be mechanically ventilated, and others who thought that school rooms should have open windows. There was even a school in Chicago where in the winter they had to give students fur coats and put them on the roof. It was still seen that “fresh air” was healthier. “Healthy” and “fresh” air is a debatable term when you’re in a city where there’s lots of pollution.

That debate really died out once you had central air conditioning systems toward the end of the 1930s and ’40s. By then, it was mandated that schools were ventilated, and they’re supposed to have air conditioning — although some still don’t have it.

With the pandemic, we see all these questions again almost exactly 100 years later. It’s like we haven’t really solved this. What’s healthy? How much ventilation is healthy? Should public spaces like schools be cooled all the time?

Many of the people reading this may be sitting in an air-conditioned space right now. So what is the alternative vision?

I’m interested in more radical changes so that the same technology that was bred in the United States, and that same definition of comfort, doesn’t just get carbon-copied and spread to the rest of the world.

When you have open asphalt, which often falls in sections of the city with the working poor, you have hotter cities. Planting more trees and green space can lower the urban heat island effect by several degrees. You can also have better-designed buildings, but that’s tricky because you need new materials and lots of money. You can provide heat pumps, but you also need to redesign the building’s air systems. And we also need more access to publicly cooled spaces so that we’re not all, individually, cooling our homes.

And then there are the cultural solutions: It’s really worth looking at why heat waves cause so many deaths. We don’t treat heat waves like the emergency they are. In a heat wave, people assume you just keep working. It’s not just that people die because they get too hot. It’s often because the medical infrastructure is not there. It’s often that even the people who have air conditioning are too afraid to turn it on because they can’t afford it. It’s often because people are left alone.

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