Misguided arguments about air conditioning's environmental impact are stopping people from installing systems in homes and offices. But in the age of solar power, there's no need to stew in your own sweat "for the sake of the planet."
BERLIN — The maps on TV weather reports were a glowing swathe of red. As the summer heatwave took hold in Germany, the country experienced record temperatures, with the mercury rising to over 35 °C in many places.
Every year, this time sees a fall in unemployment rates and a rise in heat-related deaths. But why do we take it for granted that the fierce heat outside must be reflected indoors?
In winter we have no problem with turning the heating on to keep our homes warm. In summer, there is also a simple technological solution – air conditioning. It costs relatively little, can be easily installed and creates a comfortable indoor temperature at the click of a button. It comes as standard in cars, but is rare in offices and homes in Germany. Only 3% of all homes in the country have air conditioning, whereas in the U.S. it is around 90%.
Instead, Germans sweat and complain, congregating around fans to swap tips about wearing wet T-shirts and debate the merits of ice water. It would cost no more than a few thousand euros to put an end to all this suffering: even multi-split air conditioners that control the climate of multiple rooms cost far less than many electric bikes.
But calls for air conditioning are met with suspicion and judgement. What about the environment? Air conditioners use too much energy — they cause global warming. No thanks. Much better to suffer for a couple of months every year for the sake of the planet.
Unfortunately, this argument makes no sense. Perhaps it did 20 or 30 years ago before solar and wind energy really took off. But now that we have high-tech solar panels available for relatively low prices, it is redundant.
Solar power lends itself perfectly to powering air conditioners – because when the sun is beating down and causing heatwaves, it’s also providing plenty of energy. Even a small roof can provide enough energy to cool an entire house.
So we could easily install air conditioning in our homes without worrying about our carbon footprint. Even in the U.S., where restaurants and hotels maintain Arctic temperatures in summer, air conditioners only account for 6% of energy use.
Superiority of suffering
There is an unpleasant preachiness to the entire debate. In some places, air conditioning is banned and energy companies share tips for how to survive summer without it.
Cognitive functions have been shown to decline once the temperature reaches 25 °C.
At the University of Zürich, for example, laboratories that carry out experiments on animals are allowed to have air conditioning, while students, administrative staff and professors are forced to stew in their own sweat because the local authorities refuse to allow air conditioning to be installed in those buildings.
This is despite the fact that cognitive functions have been shown to decline significantly once the temperature reaches 25 °C. With mental rather than physical work increasingly becoming the norm in developed countries, this irrational hatred of air conditioning is counterproductive.
Solar power lends itself perfectly to powering air conditioners
Sun Belt lessons
In the U.S., the Sun Belt’s economic boom was only made possible by the widespread adoption of air conditioning. In southern Europe, many homes and almost all offices have air conditioning installed.
This self-imposed suffering in many northern European countries is nothing more than self-righteous posturing. Yes, we are uncomfortable, often for weeks at a time, and older people are dying of heat stroke, but we’re doing our bit for the environment. We couldn’t possibly take the easy way out.
This hatred of air conditioning is above all an intellectual form of self-hatred.
As if individual suffering was necessary to spur us on to do something about climate change. In his wonderful essay The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos, American literary theorist Stanley Fish describes a kind of automatic self-denial, whereby people consider themselves superior to others if they deny themselves the thing they truly desire.
So, just as many people buy a Volvo when they really want a Porsche, this hatred of air conditioning is above all an intellectual form of self-hatred, a kind of anti-materialism, where people define themselves by their own suffering and champion their cause with an almost religious fervor. Their motto? “Even if it doesn’t help the environment, I suffer, therefore I am (morally superior).”