Why Air Conditioning Should Be a Universal Human Right

This century is only going to get hotter. Expanded access to cooling has become essential.

A monitor shows the temperature in Madrid.
Even Europe is seeing temperatures it rarely encounters this side of June.
Carlos Ciudad Photography/Getty Images

It’s hot out there.

Pick a country, pick a headline, pick a statistic, it’s all telling the same story — the planet is warming at an alarming rate. In the last few days alone, South East Asia recorded temperatures of 122°F, as regions of Pakistan and India labored through a punishing early-season heat wave; the bodies of assumed old mob hits washed up in Nevada’s historically-dry Lake Mead; and sweltering highs rarely seen this side of June have arrived in France and Spain.

These reports are in line with decades-long trends. The last eight years have been the hottest on record. And according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 66% of all wildfire damage from the year 1980 has actually occurred in the last five years.

Considering that rampant energy consumption on the part of humans is responsible for this crisis, it might seem counterintuitive that leading researchers are now calling for expanded access to air conditioning. In a recent article for Scientific American, four authors argue that AC ought to be considered a fundamental “human right,” and will be prerequisite for climate justice in the years ahead. They write:

“As the world heats up, billions of people need air-conditioning. This 120-year-old technology used to be considered a luxury, but in the age of climate change, it is a necessity for human survival.”

How can the planet possibly accommodate billions of more AC units, though? (Just 12% of people living in the world’s hottest regions currently have air conditioning, while 90% of Americans use the technology.)

Between the fossils fuels that are burned to provide AC, and the gaseous emissions that the units’ refrigerants are responsible for sending into the atmosphere, cooling is an expensive, deleterious process. It’s been bad enough, while confined to small portions of the world that only use it for portions of the year (how many New Yorkers are blaring their AC through the winter?) that scientists predict it could account for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. So why, even as heat waves mount, should we prioritize the installation of more units?

Because people are hurting and economies are suffering. In places like India, Indonesia, Central America, the Middle East and the African countries surrounding the Sahara Desert, extreme temperatures aren’t just an annoying anomaly of summer. They’re a daily, working reality, forcing laborers to earn wages in life-threatening conditions. When workers are lucky enough not lose their lives, they’re still certain to lose income. In 2020, nearly 300 billion work hours were lost due to extreme heat. This isn’t just heartbreaking from a human perspective, it’s bad for cold-blooded capitalists, too. Access to cooling keeps projects moving, and helps ensure dynamic, investable economies.

And that’s to say nothing of heat’s impact on the physical and cognitive development of children. How are parents supposed to raise their kids, or how are those kids supposed to focus on learning, when dehydration, heat exhaustion and cramps are as common as a nosebleed?

Here’s the deal: AC is going to arrive in these countries no matter what. That’s essential, considering the 21st-century is only going to get hotter from here. But as the authors wrote for Scientific American, broad-scale cooling doesn’t necessarily have to mean more global warming.

They recommend a commitment, which should be made as soon as possible, to providing air conditioning in a sustainable fashion. That means bringing down the cost of high-efficiency units, no more pawning off old units (which are prodigious polluters) to the Global South, investments in refrigerants that are kinder on the climate and finding ways to use local climates to our collective advantage.

Consider: these countries have incredible, untapped solar energy potential. The need for cooling is at its highest when the sun is in the sky — which is also when solar power is at its peak. Plugging future units into a grid predicated on clean, renewable sources of energy could be a game-changer.

It’s easy, sitting from a nation that industrialized itself decades ago, to point at emerging countries and discourage their embrace of yesterday’s luxuries. It’s even easier to do so from a laptop in a temperature-controlled apartment. But that sort of viewpoint, whether intentional or not, only seeks to rig the system against communities that are already suffering. As the world changes, so too must our fundamental human rights. Cooling is now one of them. Let’s build a system that works for us all.

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