A hot room wont usually kill you, but a hot planet will. If you feel sweaty, just imagine how your grandchildren are going to feel
We think of air conditioning as a first world luxury, but its really more of an American one. In Europe, fewer than 5% of households have air conditioning, according to the International Energy Agency, and even in hot regions like Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, only 8% of households have it. In the US, nearly 90% of households are air conditioned.
In New York, where the summer reverberates with the hum of air conditioners, that percentage seems even higher. Along certain avenues, you walk in a sprinkle of condensation dripping from row after row of window units above, never quite sure if youre supposed to be disgusted. In Queens, where I live, one of my neighbors runs their window unit almost all year long, cooling their apartment in winter against the steam radiator that the landlord keeps on full blast around the clock, and in summer against, well, the summer. The poor unit only gets a couple months of rest a year, in the spring and the fall, though even then the person often runs it in fan mode, probably because the sudden absence of the machines roar is so unnerving.
I dont have an air conditioner, and never have. When I mention this to acquaintances, some flat-out dont believe me; others seem concerned for my health, begging me to accept old window units they have in their closets. My parents offer to wire me money so I can buy one. I dont decline their offers out of pride, or stubbornness. It really just doesnt feel that hot to me. Even when the heat index hit 133 this July, I only noticed because of all the people on social media proclaiming they werent going to leave the house that day. I have a thermometer on my living room wall, so I know it doesnt get that hot, never above 95. I sit at my desk in my boxers, drinking iced tea, occasionally swabbing sweat from my neck and chest. (I will admit that the white T-shirt I use for this has become alarmingly yellowed.) I sleep with a fan on me, on low or medium. I dont know what to say. It aint that bad.
A recent article in the New York Times (for which, full disclosure, I was interviewed, though my quotes didnt make it in) pointed out something that Ive often observed anecdotally: that the perception of thermal discomfort is correlated with GDP. In other words, only rich people whine about the heat, crank the a/c, and then go on Twitter to brag about how theyre not setting foot outside. Everyone else just mops the sweat from their brow and gets on with their lives.
Is it my economic bracket, then, that gives me a tolerance for the heat? Im a writer and, aside from the occasional big year, its true Im wretchedly, comically poor. Its also true Ive always lived in crappy old buildings with no central air, where the outlets had that looseness that makes you think a fire will break out if you plug in anything that pulls more juice than a desk lamp. But theres a natural process at play, too. According to science, your body can actually acclimatize to heat pretty easily. All it takes is one or two weeks of constant sweating and elevated core temperature; your metabolic rate plummets, while your cardiovascular function and sweat rate goes way up, making you a super-efficient ventor of heat.
So its not that Im tough, or stoic in fact, Im a huge whiner; ask my girlfriend its just that by the time the heat index hit 133 here in New York, Id been fully acclimatized by a month and a half of sweating it out.
But if youre one of the 90% of Americans with air conditioning, and you sleep and live in an artificially cooled environment, not to mention work eight, nine hours a day in an office they are notoriously chilly your body never gets to acclimatize. Those few minutes you spend outside, panting from frigid office to frigid home or vice versa, are going to feel hellish, even if its only in the 80s. Air conditioning isnt the solution its the problem.
But then, not all of those 90% of American households with a/c are affluent not even close. The American insistence on air conditioning comes down to something in the national character, I think. The American aversion to heat is essentially defiant, a conquest of the environment, a refusal to have the temperature dictated to you by the planet. Its manifest destiny and global imperialism applied to the living room thermostat – the Dont Tread On Me flag, but the snake is in a 64-degree office with windows that dont open, as the world burns outside.
And the world is burning; June was the hottest month in human history, and air conditioning is undoubtedly a factor in that. Hydrofluorocarbons, the refrigerants used in a/c units, are far more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide or methane, and if we continue along at our current pace, a/c alone will use as much electricity by mid-century as all of China uses today. If that power comes from fossil fuels, a/c alone will account for a half-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures.
The conventional wisdom is that the main obstacle to pulling out of this nosedive, in the US anyway, is that a lot of people just dont believe the planet is getting warmer. But I dont think thats quite true. Trump and the people like him, the ageing boomers in red states who forward their adult children emails about how climate change is caused by sunspots or is a Chinese conspiracy, dont actually disbelieve in global warming; they just refuse to be inconvenienced, by facts or blame or responsibility, just as they refuse to be inconvenienced by heat or sweat. Thats why logic doesnt work on them; youre arguing against an emotional position, not an intellectual one.
The difference is, a hot room wont usually kill you, but a hot planet will. If you think walking from your office to the subway is sweaty, just imagine how your grandchildren are going to feel in 2060, as they wait in weeks-long lines at the Canadian border, applying for asylum from wildfires and droughts. If we dont acclimatize voluntarily soon, well be acclimatized eventually by force.
Franklin Schneider is the author of two books – a memoir about being fired 10 times in 10 years, and a pulp thriller he wrote because he was broke. He studied writing at the University of Iowa and lives in New York