July 23, 2015

STANDING UP FOR SCIENCE: America’s Air Conditioning Habit Is Eco-Friendly.

I’ve worked with Germans. And Brits. And Swedes. And Dutch people. And French people. All of whom professed themselves absolutely baffled by our insistence on wasting so much energy cooling our offices and homes, when we could just build buildings that cool themselves naturally if we open the windows occasionally.

For Europeans reading this, I may actually be able to clear up this baffling issue: Americans use air conditioning more because America is a lot hotter than Europe is. For example, in Washington, where the weather is apparently “pretty similar” to Berlin, it is expected to be 87 degrees Fahrenheit (31 Celsius) tomorrow. In Berlin, Weather.com informs me that temperatures are expected to be a torrid, sultry … 75 Fahrenheit (23 Celsius).

Of course, on any two random days, the weather might be unseasonably cold or unseasonably hot. You really need to look at monthly averages. And lo and behold, when we look, we discover that Washington has an average temperature of 88 degrees in July, while Berlin has an average temperature of … 73 (yes, that is indeed 31 and 23 Celsius).

And we’re not talking about a place that’s really hot, like Dallas (average July temperature is 96, or 36 Celsius) or Phoenix (106, or 41 Celsius). We’re just talking about a rather ordinary American city in roughly the middle of the country’s north-to-south span.

We do have some cities with more European temperatures, including San Francisco and Seattle, but they are not our largest population centers. The rest of the country, even places that are frozen wastelands in the winter, experiences summertime average highs above 80 degrees. That’s not a rogue heat wave, the kind that Northern Europeans complain about endlessly while futilely fiddling with their fans. That’s just what we Americans call “summer.” A heat wave is when it’s 100 degrees (38 Celsius) and your dog won’t go outside because the pavement burns his feet. . . .

You could argue that if Americans had not migrated en masse from the temperate north to the blistering sunbelt, we would need less energy for climate control. You could argue that, but you’d be wrong. Americans still expend much more energy heating their homes than cooling them. That’s actually not that surprising. The difference between the average temperature outside and the temperature that is comfortable inside is generally only 10 to 20 degrees in most of America, for most of the summer. On the other hand, in January, the residents of Rochester, New York — the cold, snowy, rapidly depopulating area that my mother hails from — you need to get the temperature up from an average low of 18 degrees (-8 Celsius) to at least 60 or 65. That takes a lot of energy.

On average, the move from cold areas to warm ones has actually saved energy, not caused us to use more. So why are we so down on air conditioning, while accepting flagrant heat use as normal? In part, it’s because air conditioning still seems optional. Unlike a cold winter with no heat, a hot summer with no cooling won’t definitely kill you.

Also, snobs, busybodies and puritans seem to occupy colder climates for some reason.

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