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Pope’s Encyclical: Eschew Air Conditioning?

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I know why Victorian women fainted so much. They were too hot – literally. Wearing layers and layers of clothes, corseted to the point of not being able to breath, attempting to make merry in rooms draped and swathed and festooned with velvet furniture and bric-a-brac. If you think about London in the summer … you’d faint too. I will happily keep my modern clothing and my air conditioning, thank you.

Not so fast, says Pope Francis. His encyclical, Laudato Si’, suggests that air conditioning is one of those modern features that is giving us environmental woes.

Some countries are gradually making significant progress, developing more effective controls and working to combat corruption. People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour, which at times appears self-destructive. (55)

Could this be true? Are those of us basking in the relative comfort of air conditioning acting in a way that is harmful to others? Mark P. Mills takes exception with this.

Perhaps, Mills says, the pope was misinformed:

Here’s what the Pope’s advisors likely informed His Holiness: energy consumed just for air conditioning in America equals that used for all purposes by the countries of Mexico and Argentina combined.

Perhaps his advisors also noted that when the world’s 169 emerging economies can finally afford to embrace air conditioning at the level used in the ‘west’, their collective electric use will be 4,500 percent greater than all the electricity used for air conditioning in the United States.

Put another way—especially in the context of the same Encyclical’s call to eschew fossil fuels—satisfying the entire potential demand of these poorer nations to cool their homes and hospitals, their food warehouses, factories and offices would require burning at least one billion tons more coal per year. (This assumes that coal’s share of global electric supply is cut in half in the coming two decades — an economically improbable scenario.)

But, Mills notes, it doesn’t work that way. Air-conditioning isn’t just about comfort (although I certainly appreciate that aspect). Air-conditioning is also about health and profit.

Where there is no air conditioning because of power failures or poverty, death rates soar, especially among the most vulnerable. And where air conditioning finally takes hold, witness the history of the American South, economies flourish.

One can guarantee that emerging economies will follow the same pattern as the United States and, more recently, in China in the adoption of air conditioning. Even though Willis Carrier invented the modern air conditioner in 1902, fewer than 10 percent of American homes had one by 1965. However, by the turn of the century the penetration blew past 85 percent as the country got wealthier and air conditioning got cheaper.

How else did air conditioning change America?

In the 1930s, air conditioning spread to department stores, rail cars, and offices, sending workers’ summer productivity soaring [emphasis added.] Until then, central courtyards and wide-open windows had offered the only relief. Residential air conditioning was slower to take hold: As late as 1965, just 10 percent of U.S. homes had it, according to the Carrier Corporation. Families in the South made do by sleeping on the porch or even putting their underwear in the icebox. By 2007, however, the number was 86 percent. As cool air spread across the country, Sun Belt cities that had been unbearable in the summer became more attractive places to live and work, facilitating a long-term shift in U.S. population.

Mills notes that if every American went back to fans and screened windows, the global demand for air-conditioning would not decrease. Developing nations are clamoring to get more air-conditioning. Why? Well, think about India’s recent heat wave; it is blamed for more than 2300 deaths. Do we honestly think that the nation of India would turn down more air-conditioning were it economically feasible for more people?

Mills explains the “predicament” of this suggestion by the pope that air conditioning is harmful.

We are left with the final redoubt, which is to ensure air conditioners become far more efficient. Here we bump into the inconvenience of the laws of nature in our universe. As strange as it sounds, it takes heat to move heat, everywhere and always. The controlling law of thermodynamics is in a realm so immutably special that Einstein stated that it “is the only physical theory” that “will never be overthrown.”  There is no Moore’s Law (computer-like gains in efficacy) for energy machines. And even if air conditioners become twice as efficient as the best today—for which there is no known path—global energy use for air conditioning will still soar.

These same energy realities are inherent in the features of cars and computers too. But the air conditioner is not just “a simple example,” as Pope Francis wrote. It is the purest and least complicated example of realities immutability tied to rising prosperity and thus “increasing use” of energy in poor nations, which are mainly in the hottest parts of the world.

If we want to see the poorest of the poor lifted from poverty, it will mean more energy usage. Now, that doesn’t mean the energy cannot be a cleaner or more efficient kind, but we cannot, as Pope Francis suggests, simply pronounce something like air conditioning to be destructive and harmful, when indeed, it has been shown to create not only more habitable condition, but also economic growth.

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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