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The case against air conditioning

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By Stan Cox
Sunday, July 18, 2010

Washington didn't grind to a sweaty halt this month under triple-digit temperatures.

People didn't even slow down.

Instead, a three-day, 100-plus-degree, record-shattering heat wave prompted Washingtonians to crank up their favorite humidity-reducing, electricity-bill-busting, fluorocarbon-filled appliance -- the air conditioner.

This isn't smart. In a country that's among the world's highest greenhouse-gas emitters, air conditioning is one of the worst power-guzzlers. The energy required to air-condition American homes and retail spaces has doubled since the early 1990s.

Turning buildings into refrigerators burns fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gases, which raise global temperatures, which creates a need for more air conditioning.

AC's obvious public-health benefits during severe heat waves do not justify its lavish use in everyday life for months on end. Less than half a century ago, America thrived with only the spottiest use of air conditioning. It could again.

While central air will always be needed in facilities such as hospitals, archives and cooling centers for those who are vulnerable to heat, what would an otherwise AC-free Washington look like?

• At work: In a world without air conditioning, a warmer, more flexible, more relaxed work place helps make summer a time to slow down again. Three-digit temperatures prompt siestas. Code-orange days mean offices are closed. Shorter summer business hours and month-long closings -- common in pre-air-conditioned America -- return.

• At home: Homeowners pry open windows painted shut decades ago. In the air-conditioned age, fear of crime was often cited by people reluctant to open their homes to night breezes. In Washington, as in most of the world's warm cities, window grilles (not "bars," please) are now standard. In renovation and new construction alike, high ceilings, better cross-ventilation, whole-house fans, screened porches, basements and white "cool roofs" to reflect solar rays become de rigueur. Home utility bills plummet.

• Around town: Saying goodbye to AC means saying hello to the world. With more people spending more time outdoors -- particularly in the late afternoon and evening, when temperatures fall more quickly outside than they do inside -- neighborhoods see a boom in spontaneous summertime socializing. Rather than cowering alone in chilly home-entertainment rooms, neighbors get to know one another.

"Green roofs" of grass, ivy and even food crops sprout on the flat tops of government and commercial buildings around the city, including the White House. These layers of soil and vegetation (on top of a crucially leak-proof surface) insulate interiors from the pounding sun, while water from the plants' leaves provides evaporative cooling. More trees than ever appear in both private and public spaces.

And the National Mall is reborn as the National Grove.

Stan Cox is the author of "Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer)."

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