Thursday, July 27, 2006
Will we ever be able to enjoy the hot weather again? Will we ever return to the innocent days when we basked in the sun, and succumbed to the enforced laziness that 100-degree days demand—or complained about the suffocating heat—without being haunted by the prospect that the heatwave, once a whim of Mother Nature, is now a man-made hell?
Used to be that we could celebrate a hot spell without somebody invoking environmental catastrophe. Now, when it gets hot, somebody is bound to say: “global warming,” like it’s the punchline to a joke that’s not funny.
My experience of last weekend’s heatwave was ruined by the fact that I spent the hottest part of it trapped in a traffic jam on 101 near Santa Rosa, inside a car with a broken air conditioner. The only breeze was scented by exhaust fumes. In the shade of the redwoods nearby, the temperature was 108. In my Volvo on the highway, it was probably hotter.
My discomfort and frustration were complicated by feelings of guilt; it was impossible not to consider the fact—and I believe it’s a fact—that while I was suffering from the effects of the heat wave, I was also contributing to it.
I had a good reason to be there—I was going to a wedding. I’m sure everyone else clogging the Redwood Highway with me had good reason to be there. But still. Driving a car in 108-degree heat—pumping CO2, etc., into the overheated atmosphere while sweating bullets—it’s such a stupid thing to do, it ought to be illegal.
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Cars are bad; we all know that. But in the summertime, air conditioners are worse.
While I was trapped in my car last weekend, millions of Americans had trapped themselves indoors with their air conditioners. Air conditioners have become a necessity. This was not always so.
Air conditioners use so much electricity that heatwaves bring on nationwide fears of rolling blackouts.
Back in the innocent days before global warming, summer was a time for swimming holes, beaches and pools, or at least hoses, opened fire hydrants and cool drinks on the porch. Now most Americans spend their summers with air-conditioning.
The fact of global warming sets a tragic irony to work in the summer. As the earth warms, the “need” for air conditioners increases. Air conditioners use so much electricity that heatwaves bring on nationwide fears of rolling blackouts. Electricity is largely created by burning coal—50 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from coal-burning power plants—and coal-burning power plants are enormous contributors to global warming. (Another 21 percent of our electricity comes from power plants that burn other fossil fuels, mostly natural gas, like Moss Landing—those plants emit greenhouse gasses too.)
This tragic loop is exacerbated by the fact that air conditioners have historically used, as refrigerants, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which deplete ozone and contribute to global warming. While CFCs are being phased out, they are still in wide use throughout the world. And their replacements, while less damaging, are all greenhouse gases, all eventually destined to escape into the atmosphere.
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Air conditioners are ruining summer. I am not alone in this opinion. There’s a piece circulating on the Internet, by the journalist Stan Cox, which claims that air conditioning is a commercial plot devised to lure Americans away from the relaxing joys of summer and into the mall.
“In a summer without AC, the mall/big-box strategy of concentrated retailing would create little more than a hot stew of bodily aromas,” Cox writes. “With it, leisurely shopping has largely displaced noncommercial pastimes for many.” Air conditioning, according to Cox, helps make summer a celebration of power-sucking appliances: “You can’t fully enjoy a jumbo-screen TV, a PC, an SUV or an RV unless you have AC.”
I have never owned a home air conditioner (where I live, in Monterey, it’s easy to get along without one, and I have managed in hotter places too). But I have always figured that in a car, AC is a good thing. I’m rethinking that.
Stan Cox reports that “about 5.5 percent of the gasoline burned annually by America’s cars and light trucks—7 billion gallons—goes to run air-conditioners.” He points out that this is equivalent to the total oil consumption of Indonesia, “a petroleum-rich country with a population size comparable to ours.” Whoa. “In 2005, air-conditioners in US vehicles burned up the equivalent of the nation’s entire fuel-ethanol production—twice.”
The solution to this problem is clear. We must get out of our cars. We must leave our air-conditioned homes and offices and avoid the mall and go to the beach, or to the river, or to the park. We must sip lemonade. We must respect the summer, and enjoy it.