Amid heat waves, a closer look at power burned for air conditioning

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.

los angeles heat.jpg

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

Climate Center

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

Floods Linked?”) 

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

the The

Great Energy Challenge.

LaGesse, who previously wrote for National Geographic on the Google Power Meter and whether smart meters are necessary to spur energy savings,

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

editor for National Geographic Digital Media, responsible for a special series of stories on The Great 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

Report magazine,

where she wrote the Beyond

the Barrel


Changing Planet


Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn