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Seattle's heat wave makes our climate change catch-22 obvious

The air conditioning we increasingly need to survive is killing the planet.

Until recently, I didn’t realize just how badly prepared we are for how much energy the world’s growing cooling needs will require to keep society functioning as we see more days with record-breaking heat like in the Pacific Northwest. And I’m not talking about people being able to live comfortably on warm days — I’m talking about them being able to inhabit large areas of the planet at all.

I mean, I knew that air conditioning consumed a massive amount of energy, and I knew that energy’s production released a large amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air. But then this stat in a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shifted my perspective entirely: “328 million Americans consume more energy for cooling than the 4.4 billion people living in all of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia (excluding China), and just under all the electricity used for everything by the 1.2 billion people in Africa.”

That number has historically represented a relatively low number of people from the Seattle area. The city — which is normally somewhere in the 70 degree F range this time of year — broke its record for hottest day ever three days in a row, topping out on Monday at 108 degrees F. That same day, just across the water in British Columbia, the city of Lytton hit around 118 degrees F, making it the all-time highest temperature measured in any city in Canada — ever.

Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and the other major cities of the region just weren’t designed with these kinds of temperatures in mind. In Portland, restaurants have struggled to stay open and cable cars had to delay service as power cables literally melted. Asphalt roads warped and cracked under the heat stress in Seattle. And the power grid in Portland especially has strained to accommodate the surge in air conditioning needed to keep residents cool.

While the stretch of heat is historic, Seattleites have been adjusting their lives to this new reality for the past few years. A majority of homes in the metro region don’t have air conditioners installed, mostly because there was rarely any need aside from a few exceptionally warm days per year. But according to U.S. Census Bureau data, the area has seen a spike in the installations — 44.3 percent of homes in the city and surrounding counties now have air conditioning, compared to just 31 percent in 2013, The Seattle Times recently reported.

That number isn’t evenly distributed — just 29 percent of Seattle renters have air conditioning, according to the same data. And while many states require landlords to provide heating to tenants in the winter, the reverse isn’t true for protecting residents from the heat. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next five years we begin to see that change, as building owners recognize the growing need.

It’s becoming a more pressing need especially in parts of the country like the southeast that are more often experiencing both high heat and humidity. As National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research shows, the combo can be more deadly than people realize — and at lower temperatures.

Now, if it was just a matter of U.S. domestic policy, I’d be all for an explicit right for renters to be able to comfortably inhabit their homes in the summer without running the risk of heat stroke. But zooming out globally, we have a problem. Well, actually, make that several problems.

Like I said, space cooling — air conditioners, fans and dehumidifiers — makes up a huge chunk of the world’s energy demand. It's estimated that space cooling accounted for over 15 percent of all electricity in the U.S. in 2016 — a number that surges to almost 30 percent during peak use hours.

Are we condemned to making the hellish choice between letting people boil in their own bodies or speeding up the doom of our fragile ecosystem?

While the U.S. leads in energy consumed by cooling, China and the rest of the world are catching up. That same IEA report estimated that space cooling made up 30 percent of its increased energy demand in China since 1990, putting it on almost even footing with the U.S. “Last year in Beijing, during a heatwave, 50 percent of the power capacity was going to air conditioning,” John Dulac, an analyst at the IEA, told the Guardian in 2019. “These are ‘oh s---’ moments.”

“Without action to address energy efficiency, energy demand for space cooling will more than triple by 2050 — consuming as much electricity as all of China and India today,” the IEA report warns.

That number only goes up when you consider a 2018 study from the U.K.’s University of Birmingham that estimates what it would take to provide appropriate cooling to everyone who needs it, not just everyone who can afford it. When you factor in refrigeration needs and mobile cooling to keep cars and shipping trucks cooled, by 2050 the world “would require a total of 14 billion cooling appliances — an additional 4.5 billion appliances compared to the baseline forecast — or four times as many pieces of cooling equipment than are in use today.”

This brings us to the biggest issue: All that energy currently produces a lot of carbon emissions, accelerating the speed at which the planet is warning. If we were to deploy the same inefficient cooling units as today at the rate the Birmingham study suggests will be required, with the same carbon-heavy mix of electricity production, it would result in those appliances depositing 7.4 gigatons of carbon emissions into the air. That’s nearly as much as the U.S. and European Union emitted combined in 2019 and more than double the amount of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases produced by units in use today.

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There are potential solutions out there, ranging from the obvious but costly to the intriguing but fanciful. Improving the efficiency of cooling units and building construction could help reduce the amount of power needed to keep homes cool; swapping out refrigerants that damage the atmosphere will also lessen the impact of increased cooling demand. And a recent study in the Lancet suggests that fans may be more effective than previously realized at keeping people cool in humid environments.

And in the most out there of propositions, one pair of scientists sees a world where air conditioning units do triple duty as carbon-capture devices and hydrocarbon producers. That last one is both the most unproven option and the only one that would actually reverse the effects of climate change.

So, are we condemned to making the hellish choice between letting people boil in their own bodies or speeding up the doom of our fragile ecosystem? No — but our options aren’t looking great to be honest. Like I wrote last week, it’s absolutely bonkers that there’s even a debate in the U.S. about whether to invest heavily in mitigating climate change and its effects, especially considering the effects on the infrastructure in Oregon and Washington state.

In essence, the choice is really between taking the hard steps to deal with the problem — or cranking up the A/C and pretending that it’s not hot enough to kill a person outside our climate-controlled bubble.