Is Air Conditioning a Human Right? The New York Times Debates the Question


Written by Lloyd Alter

Air conditioning has been a hot topic on TreeHugger for years; the idea that we are cooking the planet to make electricity to push heat out of our houses is crazy at every level. Now the New York Times asks the question in their Room For Debate feature, asking in their Green blog Is Air-Conditioning a Basic Right?

They found two supporters of AC, an engineer, Ed Bosco, who calls AC a “necessary luxury”, a contradiction in terms by definition. He claims:

The availability of air-conditioning allows architects to consider building geometries that were not possible when it was critical that everyone be seated near a window.

First of all that isn’t true, there is such a thing as cross-ventilation. And fans. And what’s so bad about requiring that people sit near a window? The Germans have it in their building code, it’s a fine idea.

Then he goes on to note:

The Phoenix Cardinals now have an air-conditioned retractable-roof stadium, an indoor oasis that can be cooled below 80 degrees in a climate where the temperatures can exceed 100 degrees. This allowed the team to host preseason and opening weekend home games for the first time since moving to Arizona in 1988.

In what way is this progress? And why are people living in Phoenix? Because of air conditioning. Because everyone goes from their air conditioned car to their air conditioned house to now, their air conditioned stadium. And he thinks this is a good thing. Phoenix IS the problem.

Air Conditioning Company exec Richard Salmon starts off with

In the modern world, it is inconceivable to go to a swelteringly hot country without air-conditioning. Even the very thought of it makes us begin to sweat.

First of all, that is patently untrue. Lots of people go to lots of hot countries without AC. Lots of people don’t have electricity, let alone electric cooling. Second of all, you are SUPPOSED to sweat. That’s how your SUPPOSED to keep cool. He continues:

Office productivity rises significantly when the work environment has a steady, comfortable temperature; conversely, excessive heat and humidity result in significant drops in productivity. Most corporate decision makers would happily install air-conditioning to squeeze any additional profits from workers.

And many companies are building offices with opening windows, ventilation, fans and either no or just a very little AC. They are saving a fortune in energy costs.

The anti-AC brigade includes architect Steve Badanes, who summarizes five years of TreeHugger in his first paragraph of We’ve forgotten natural cooling

Our early ancestors avoided the heat by retreating into the cave or the shade of a tree, and engaging in strenuous activity only during the cooler or breezier part of the day. Early vernacular buildings developed using these universal principles, carefully orienting and shading buildings so that they gained heat in winter and were shady in summer, introducing thermal mass in dry climates, and in more humid ones using cross ventilation, porches, shutters, ceiling fans, solar chimneys and insulation.

He then channels Cameron Tonkinwise about AC making architects lazy and William Saletan about cooking the planet. I love his conclusion:

The time-tested passive strategies still work to reduce the need for cooling, and modern technologies like photovoltaics, daylight integrated lighting and smart controls can bridge the gap to a more sustainable future.

Rajendra Shende, former head of the UN Ozone Program, has actually lived without AC. He writes Letís Not Let A.C. Turn Us Soft

So what if most people donít need air-conditioning, and most people get along fine without it? Isnít access to A.C. a sign of progress? Happiness? Contented cool? Indeed, it is. Just like fatty foods taste good, and sitting in a car for even short trips is relaxing, and having an iPad makes us feel like we have the world at our fingertips. But these are not rights; they are luxuries, and they often make us soft.

Stan Cox wrote the book on AC, “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer)” He calls it A Luxury the World Canít Afford.

Having developed efficient cooling, we’ve designed homes, businesses and transportation systems that are completely dependent on it, while the resulting greenhouse emissions create the need for even more air-conditioning.

There are things that are basic human rights, and air is one of them. But people shouldn’t have to pay to get it pumped through a machine because their home was so badly designed that they have no choice. That’s why I have written Big Steps In Building: Make Natural Ventilation Mandatory and Stop Ignoring Orientation And Sun Control and Stop With the Glass FaÁades Already. Air conditioning is not a right, it is a waste.

This post was originally published by TreeHugger.


Related Stories:

Your Air Conditioner Makes You Fat

Air Conditioning Is Heating Up the Globe

Google Uses Ice Cubes To Cool Overseas Data Centers


Photo: shaggyhill/flickr


Mary B.
Mary B5 years ago

The real issue is the inefficient way buildings are made that makes air conditioning nescesary to be comfortable enough to live or work in, and this article addresses that.
It is a human right to have shelter, and a work place that make a productive and healthful life possible. No need to 'debate' that.So start retrofiting, shadeing, fanning, adding plants and heat collectors like water walls, stones, fountains, rooftop gardens, white heat reflect paint on south sides, lots of things that would immediate lesson the need for AC and make it manditory to design buildings that take air flow, solar radiation, humidity levels, ect. into account.Lots of us Boomers started doing this stuff 40 years ago.

Jane R.
Jane R5 years ago

Has anyone read how many people have died due to the extreme heat? I don't think they would call air cond. a luxury, I think they would call it a right! They had a right to avoid death due to the heat. They had a right to life! Apparently they couldn't afford air cond. and therefore perished. Those who can afford it have a right to have it and use it!

John S.
Past Member 5 years ago

Thanks, interesting.

Sarah M.
no no5 years ago

Being spoiled was never so subconscious.

Sarah M.
no no5 years ago

Being spoiled was never so subconscious.

J.L. A.
JL A5 years ago

good question

aj E.
aj E5 years ago


Antonia Windham
Antonia Windham5 years ago

It's too hot tonight to debate air conditioning (or to do much of anything else). Too hot tonight to do anything but be profoundly grateful for the almost adequate AC keeping the indoors somewhat more bearable than the outdoors.

Kit B.
Kit B5 years ago

I've been following the climate-change science for nearly 40 years. Now suddenly everyone wants to over react. It's suddenly chic, or cool to pretend that everyone knows and understands the topic.

What will not work to get people to accept changes is over reaction, telling people that they can not have A/C or refrigerators, those draw power as well.

Though we need to make changes in our lifestyles, it needs to be done as something society can adapt to and with - in gradual, incremental ways. Once smoking was fully accepted, now it is not. That didn't suddenly happen it was a gradual change. We have 300 million people in this country, and since the late 1950's and mid-60's A/C has become part of our daily lives. Demand they all shut down their A/C and you'll see a revolt rather than acceptance of climate change. This whole idea is reactionary thinking, that will not bring about the needed changes.

Antonia Windham
Antonia Windham5 years ago

And I see, David H, that you've little concern for quality of life as well. I've a sugggestion. Since there's so much starvation in the world, we really should spend more of our limited financial resources on feeding the poor. Since humans before the modern era had little to nothing in the way of adequate dental care (and most survived the lack if they didn't let badly infected teeth remain unpulled for too long), I suggest we outlaw dentistry, except for the pulling of infected teeth. Think of the monetary savings - and those savings can be used to provide food for the starving.

Since our ancestors lived without modern dentistry, surely we can too? In fact, a great many people can survive without most of the things that they consider important for quality of life. Like the computer you're typing on right now? I'm sure you'll survive without enjoying yourself through the use of electronic media - which just wastes precious energy and other resources and promotes pollution. And I'm certain we can find a multitude of ways to simplify your life even more - and cause you to be responsible for much less of the global-warming problem than you currently are!