The summer nights of my childhood were spent laying on top of all my sheets, sweating the bed while a single, sad fan pivoted on my bedside table. My experience was typical: in 1993, 32 percent of US homes had no form of A/C whatsoever.
Now, every indoor space I occupy in the summer is cooled, often to the point of discomfort. In 2009, the year with the most recent statistics available, 87 percent of US homes were air conditioned. But the experiences of my childhood, and my knowledge of climate change, cause a pang of guilt whenever I crank on my A/C at home, and I'm not the only one who feels like this.
Anyone who uses air conditioning knows the familiar summer spike in their electricity bills, so it must suck up a lot of energy, which we know contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. This raises the question: is it ethical to use it? In allowing ourselves to be indulgently comfortable for a few weeks of the year (or months, depending on where you live), are we hastening the construction of a world that will be not just uncomfortable, but uninhabitable for future generations?
"It's something that we're using to relieve some of the effects of climate change, which in the process is going to ensure that summers get even hotter and heat waves longer," said Stan Cox, an author and the research coordinator at the Land Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on sustainable agriculture. "It's a nasty feedback loop."
Cox isn't an expert in ethics, but he does know a lot about the effects of our growing addiction to air conditioning—he wrote a book published in 2010 that dove into the topic. Ethical questions are, of course, largely personal and depend on your world view, but Cox highlighted a few things you might want to consider when answering this question for yourself.
If we were to suddenly shut off the cooling systems in some glass-enclosed high rises, people would roast.
Chiefly is, of course, the matter of climate change. Climate change is causing each year to be hotter. It may seem like air conditioning would just be a drop in the bucket compared to the energy consumption of things like cars and air travel, but it contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions. Home air conditioners consume about 5 percent of all the electricity generated in the US and produce 100 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to the Department of Energy. And that's just in the home.
"When you add up home, commercial, and public building air conditioning, as well as vehicle air conditioning, it's about 500 million tons of carbon dioxide per year," Cox told me. "And until recently, that was about half of all the air conditioning impact in the world."
Now, the rest of the world is starting to outpace the US: as developing countries become wealthier, air conditioning becomes more ubiquitous. Meanwhile, we haven't curbed our usage either—Cox estimates that, including all the different sources, air conditioning is responsible for 20 percent of electricity consumption in the US. Globally, we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent, so cutting back on A/C would make a significant dent in that goal.
And there are other downsides to air conditioning, Cox said, like eroding our tolerance for heat and reducing our time outdoors. Some research even suggests air conditioning could be contributing to the obesity epidemic, by keeping our body in a comfortable zone where it doesn't have to work too hard to warm up or cool down. With the exception of extreme heat, which can be deadly, humans can adapt pretty well to the changing temperatures without artificial assistance. But is it worth sacrificing comfort?
Cox noted that one household shirking its air conditioner to suffer through the summer in the name of environmentalism isn't, unfortunately, going to make much difference on a global scale. And if you leave your house to go to the office, or the coffee shop, or pretty much anywhere else, ditching your bedroom A/C probably isn't going to do much for your heat tolerance either.
Realistically, Cox says we need governments to set hard limits on our energy consumption if we're going to meet our climate change combating goals, and it may even require changes to infrastructure. Many modern buildings are designed to look good and function well with air conditioning. If we were to suddenly shut off the cooling systems in some of the glass-enclosed high rises of Manhattan, people would roast, Cox pointed out.
In the meantime, if you're still feeling guilty about plugging in your window unit when a heatwave hits, Cox said you might want to consider cutting back in other ways to balance out the increased consumption.
"You could calculate its impact compared to other things, so you can go ahead and use air conditioning and cut something else," Cox said. "Then one could still feel morally okay."