Air Conditioning Is a Lifesaver in a Warming World

Record heat waves scorched the United States last summer. Along the Pacific Northwest coast, mussels cooked en masse in their shells, while people cooked in their houses. Few people in the traditionally temperate Pacific Northwest have central air conditioning, and people who could afford it rushed to purchase air conditioners. Then, some renters were hit with a surprise. Their landlords told them they needed to remove their air-conditioning units—and the law was on the landlords’ side. It was a deadly dilemma: Oregon and Washington saw over 600 excess deaths during the late-June heat wave.

As Northwesterners discovered over the summer of 2021, much of the United States and Europe views air conditioning as a luxury, not a necessity.

In this worldview, heating saves lives, while cooling merely keeps people comfortable. Our failure to take extremely hot temperatures seriously is now on a direct collision course with accelerating climate change and ever more frequent deadly heat waves in places that were historically far cooler. And it’s mixed with a preachy, puritanical attitude toward personal decisions that sees air conditioning as an unnecessary luxury that contributes to the disaster, not as a necessity for surviving it.

Record heat waves scorched the United States last summer. Along the Pacific Northwest coast, mussels cooked en masse in their shells, while people cooked in their houses. Few people in the traditionally temperate Pacific Northwest have central air conditioning, and people who could afford it rushed to purchase air conditioners. Then, some renters were hit with a surprise. Their landlords told them they needed to remove their air-conditioning units—and the law was on the landlords’ side. It was a deadly dilemma: Oregon and Washington saw over 600 excess deaths during the late-June heat wave.

As Northwesterners discovered over the summer of 2021, much of the United States and Europe views air conditioning as a luxury, not a necessity.

In this worldview, heating saves lives, while cooling merely keeps people comfortable. Our failure to take extremely hot temperatures seriously is now on a direct collision course with accelerating climate change and ever more frequent deadly heat waves in places that were historically far cooler. And it’s mixed with a preachy, puritanical attitude toward personal decisions that sees air conditioning as an unnecessary luxury that contributes to the disaster, not as a necessity for surviving it.

It’s a little embarrassing to be publicly seen as pro-air conditioning. Coverage of climate change is much more likely to portray running the air conditioner as a planet-destroying act than turning on the furnace. Consider this July 2019 New York Times piece, which asked, and not exactly rhetorically: “Do Americans Need Air-Conditioning?” It’s hard to imagine anyone asking that question about artificial heat.

These intellectual debates over air conditioning far too often fail to consider a rather essential point. Does air conditioning save the lives of people who might otherwise die without it? The answer is, indisputably, yes.

Western cultures view the production of artificial heat as healthy and necessary. By the mid-1800s, Americans had developed a global reputation for massively overheating their buildings (a trait that Charles Dickens famously complained about).

Indoor cooling is a different story. More people do remember a time before it existed.

In American cities in the 1800s—even in the Northeast—people perished regularly in stuffy and crowded homes and apartments. “This is the harvest season for death’s reaper,” the labor leader Charles Stelzle observed of sweltering summers in the poorest areas of New York City. Bacteria thrived in hot and unsanitary conditions, spreading illness. During heat waves, nighttime, when our bodies require a respite from the daytime heat, is the most dangerous time of all: People who could—largely young men—absconded to sleep in the park or on the roofs of their buildings. (On at least a few occasions, people rolled off the roofs to their deaths.).

But despite all these deaths, when engineer Willis Haviland Carrier installed the first modern air conditioner in a Buffalo printing building in 1902, which cooled the air and controlled humidity, it wasn’t viewed as a lifesaving machine but as a luxurious one.

Advertising for air conditioners in the 20th century focused much more on comfort, lifestyle, and productivity than it did on saving lives—and in doing so created resistance to it.

Air-conditioning detractors like to point out that people managed to survive for millennia without it. From this point of view, sweltering weather is a natural reality that humans shouldn’t meddle with, an attitude that bears some worrisome resemblances to 19th-century Western notions about how people residing in tropical climates were inherently lazy and shiftless.

The same, of course, is true for vaccines, antibiotics, and sewer systems. People survived without them, apart from the ones who didn’t. And even today, a lot of people don’t survive extreme heat events. At least 600 people die each year in the United States from extreme heat events: That’s more deaths than from storms, floods, and lightning combined, according to climate researcher Kelly Sanders. That figure is probably a major underestimate, because the U.S. medical system still struggles to attribute deaths to heat or track how many such deaths take place. Heat injuries and deaths also cost money. A 2012 case study covering data from 11 U.S. states in found that the costs from heat-related injuries and deaths totaled over $10 billion. These costs are expected to rise as the country heats up.

Young people, the elderly, people with disabilities, and those who must labor outside face the most risk from heat, although everyone is vulnerable. Dying from heat stroke is not a pleasant way to go: Your brain swells, your organs begin to shut down, and you may begin to convulse—or slip into a coma. And you can die from heat with shocking speed. People can go from feeling vaguely unwell to dead within 90 minutes.

A study published in 2016 found that Americans’ risk of death on a very hot day has fallen by 80 percent since the 1939-1959 period, with most of the gain coming after 1960 —an improvement researchers attributed almost entirely to the spread of home air conditioning. That’s a number that would translate into 20,000 more deaths each year in the US if we maintained midcentury rates of heat-related deaths today. Researchers also found that this protective effect was particularly strong among vulnerable populations, including Black Americans and those ages 65 and up. This pattern holds true globally. A major 2021 research report in the Lancet estimated that, globally, access to air conditioning averted 195,000 heat-related deaths among people ages 65 and older in 2019.

In simplest terms, then, millions of people are alive today who would be dead if not for air conditioning.

Many people assume that air conditioning is worse for the environment than heating is. After all, why do we hear about it so much more? The truth is that heating a home uses considerably more energy than cooling one does. A 2020 study found that homes located in the coldest parts of the United States used considerably more energy and largely emitted more greenhouse gases than those in the warmest parts of the country did. A 2013 study concluded that living in colder climates in the United States demands more overall energy than living in warmer climates does: Climate control in Minneapolis uses about three and a half times more energy than it does in Miami.

In this light, it’s curious we spend more time criticizing people in dangerously hot climates for running the air conditioner than we do finger-wagging at people who run an oil-burning furnace during a Northern winter. And while air conditioning is very much linked to summer power outages, so is heating. Consider the collapse of the electric grid in Texas during the record-breaking 2021 cold snap, outages that likely caused the deaths of hundreds of people.

Treating air conditioning as an unnecessary luxury is not a victimless misconception: When we adopt this worldview, it’s the poor who really suffer the consequences, not wealthy professionals who might get a bit sweatier at the gym. Dense cities create what’s known as a “heat island” effect, and poorer people and people of color are more likely to live in treeless areas that reach deadly temperatures during heat waves. An extensive recent report in the Lancet found that people around the world are being exposed to more heat extremes than ever before, and that people with lower incomes are in considerably more danger than those who are better off.

In 2014, the World Health Organization estimated that by 2050, an additional 255,000 people could die each year from heat waves—deaths that would be heavily concentrated among poorer people without access to indoor cooling. While more and more people are buying air conditioners around the globe, the International Energy Agency estimated in 2018 that only 8 percent of the 2.8 billion people living in the world’s hottest places have access to one. And as the climate changes, many people may end up being blindsided by deadly heat waves that resemble nothing they’ve ever experienced before.

While there are many programs in the United States that help low-income people afford to run their heaters, far fewer programs exist for air conditioning, Simply giving people air conditioners, as more cities are starting to do, may not help much if people can’t afford to run them. During last summer’s heat wave, Washingtonians couldn’t use the over $60 million the state receives from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a federal initiative that pays for utility bills, on air conditioning bills: State rules mandated that the funds could only be used for heating. Other states, such as Massachusetts, have similar rules on the books.

Kermic Luster rests in a cooling center during a historic heatwave at the Oregon Convention Center on June 27, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

This link between air conditioning and luxury is reflected in U.S. laws, as Portland residents discovered in the summer of 2021. Throughout the United States, while landlords are required to provide heating essentially everywhere, far fewer states or cities mandate that landlords provide cooling. Most only require that landlords maintain air conditioning if it comes with the unit—and many units, especially less expensive apartments that poorer people can afford, do not.

Consider steamy Florida, where, bizarrely, landlords are legally mandated to provide heating in the winter but aren’t required to provide any air conditioning at all. Some states still cling to heating and cooling regulations long outpaced by climate change. In Massachusetts, the law states that the heat must stay on from Sept. 15 until June 15: In 2021, public housing residents were forced to endure a boiling early June heat wave in apartments with windows that didn’t open.

How can we protect people from heat while protecting the planet? Perhaps the first step is acknowledging that the existence of air conditioning isn’t the problem: It’s that we use it and distribute it so unequally, with gigantic luxury office buildings and fancy condos using far too much of it, while sweltering, old apartment buildings populated by the poor often go without. In this light, we should pass laws that ensure that people who need access to air conditioning are able to access it and are (equally importantly) able to pay for it. These laws will also need to be written in such a way that ensures the cost of air conditioning isn’t simply passed on from landlord to tenant. On the flip side, we should examine regulatory means of discouraging big-time air conditioner users from using excessive amounts of energy to keep their buildings jacket-weather chilly during the height of summer.

If we want to distribute cooling more fairly, we will need to come up with smarter and more efficient technologies. Air-conditioning technology has changed surprisingly little since the midcentury, and while air conditioners have grown far more efficient in recent decades—the most efficient models today use 30 to 50 percent less energy than those from the mid-1970s did—there is much room for improvement. We need to spend more money and time on discovering better, more efficient solutions. Electric pump technology can now heat and cool homes with more efficiency than either a furnace or a traditional air conditioner, and it’s becoming more popular in the United States, including in icy-cold places like Maine.

We will also have to undergo an extensive (and expensive) process of retrofitting existing air-conditioning systems and homes. Older air-conditioning systems use far more energy and are much harder to meter than newer systems are. We can design new buildings and renovate old ones in ways that ensure they require less air conditioning to remain safely cool during hot days—and we can even draw inspiration from the architects of the ancient past. 

Finally, we need better systems for warning people about heat danger and protecting them when heat waves occur. Some cities such as Los Angeles and Phoenix have begun to hire chief heat officers, who examine ways to protect people from heat waves. People who are socially isolated, especially elderly city dwellers, are much more likely to die during heat disasters—most people who die from heat die alone.

Climate change is real, and air conditioning use is indisputably helping warm the planet. But we can’t demand people go without cooling technology that can save their lives—and that will become even more necessary as the planet warms. Human beings vulnerable to death and injury from heat are not collateral damage in the war against climate change.