Is Air Conditioning A Human Right?

Is Air Conditioning A Human Right?

Last week’s heat wave in the North East pushed temperatures close to 100 degrees. It broke me. After a long and sleepless night spent tossing and turning, we decided that this was not how we were going to spend summer. That evening we bought an air conditioner.

I believe the next morning I declared it “one of the best decisions we ever made.”

Then I happened across the New York Time’s debate as to whether this blissful cooling system is a human right.

At first, it seemed a strange conversation; usually rights discussions are relegated to those things that are critical to life like water, food, safety. But with a bit more context, I started to appreciate the importance of the debate – less about whether everyone in the world deserves the right to AC, and more about whether we in the west need to stop relying on it in wake of its environmental toll.

According to the Times, “cooling of America’s buildings and vehicles has the annual global-warming impact of almost half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.” Three-fourths are attributable to fossil fuels, the rest to refrigerants.

Homes in the US consume more energy because of air-conditioning than do all other countries combined. That’s about to change. Worldwide demand for residential cooling is projected to increase tenfold before 2050, the result of a growing middle class and rising temperatures in already warm regions. It seems the planet may not be able to support this growth.

There are a variety of opinions in the Times’ debate. Some are calling for an end to our dependency on “lavish cooling,” saying that it’s not a right but a waste. Others have labelled AC as critical for productivity and development. Another of the debaters pragmatically pointed out that AC is critical in some instances, such as keeping temperatures steady in server rooms, making the debate on the Times' website possible.

It’s certainly got me thinking – enough to lower the AC but not outright turn it off at night. What’s your take? Should we quit our cooling addiction, cut back, or recognize it as a necessary evil for progress?

June 25, 2012