Alberto Mingardi  

McArdle (and the Pope) on air conditioning

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Megan McArdle has a most enjoyable piece on air conditioning. It is true that when we Europeans are traveling, sometimes it is more difficult to "adjust" to air conditioning than to the time zone. We have the impression that Americans like their buildings to be chilly in the summer, and comfortably hot in the winter. While we may appreciate this as a formidable victory of Man over natural difficulties, we are used to putting on our jackets when we walk outside, not inside buildings. McArdle explains well how these cultural differences have little to do with climate moralism, and more with average summer temperature. A case in point: in a very hot summer like the current one, I know lots of people who would be happy to "Americanise" and pump their A-C even in Milan.


McArdle's piece reminded me of Pope Bergoglio's condemnation of air conditioning. More specifically, Bergoglio thinks A-C is the quintessential example of a need induced by market forces (i.e. companies that spend big on advertising) and not by genuine necessity.
The Pope wrote:

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.

Of course what is staggering here is the deeply-rooted (do you remember Vance Packard's "Hidden Persuaders?") notion that businesses can easily manipulate the behaviour of millions of people - in this case, the millions of people that use air-conditioning. It seems to me that this has to do with the idea that money may translate into power over people's lives. That might be the case, if the Pope had accused air-conditioning devices' producers to be lobbying for, say, a lax policy over climate change, so that we all of us can feel hotter and thus buy more of their products. No, here the problem is different. The problem is to believe that it is more likely that advertising is changing the behaviour of millions of people, rather than just assuming that they do what they genuinely believe it is best for them. It seems to be a tremendously demeaning vision of the human person.

On A-C and the Pope, Shubhankar Chhokra had a good piece on National Review. On the papal enciclycal Laudato Si, I can't do better than recommending the excellent WSJ commentary by Fr. Robert Sirico.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (16 to date)
Paul Bogle writes:

So the problem isn't the wasteful use of resources but the technology itself? This is a very odd position for the Holy Father to take. Climate control saves lives. How many lives would have been spared in the Asian subcontinent in the past few months if that region had greater access to AC?

Though I wish no harm to anyone I wonder if the Pope might soften his view if next month Paris experiences another August like 2003.

Michael Stack writes:

I just spent a lot of time in northern Italy and southern Switzerland, and the warm hotels were difficult for me to adjust to. Bring on the air con!

adam writes:

I'm trying to remember ever seeing an advertisement for air conditioning. I've seen them for air conditioning repair, but I don't think I've ever seen one for air conditioning. Anyone?

Andrew_FL writes:

@adam-I've seen AC ads, although that really shouldn't be that surprising. Florida is flat unliveable without it. Hey, look at that, markets work!

@Paul Bogle-Indeed, in fact arguably France saw another 2003 in 2006, but that time they were better prepared, including in terms of AC, so the excess mortality was much lower.

JK Brown writes:
The problem is to believe that it is more likely that advertising is changing the behaviour of millions of people, rather than just assuming that they do what they genuinely believe it is best for them. It seems to be a tremendously demeaning vision of the human person.

But that is the driving theme of the Church, at least prior to the Reformation. That is, that the people were best by temptations proffered by the Devil and would act against their best interest. Hence, the Church was to drive the people toward what it determined best through fear and force. To whit, the church opposed free schools and printing such "that honest people should have their ears open and their reading eyes shut, that they might be instructed aright for this world by gentlemen, and for the other by priests."

Granted, once accepted that they could not destroy the competition that arose from the Reformation, the Catholic Church did adapt and bring their own "free schools" and came to be great providers of education to the wad of people.

Jon Murphy writes:

Personally, I think a/c is a public-interest good, like education. You see, when I get hot, I get really whiny. Like, really annoyingly whiny. When I'm in a/c, I have a better temperament. This means the positive externalities of a/c on my coworkers (not having to listen to me complain) are a real thing. Therefore, the whole world should have subsidized a/c, just in case I travel somewhere (end sarcasm).

Hazel Meade writes:

Personally, I have also found it annoying when buildings are over air-conditioned in the summer.

But I don't attribute this to market forces, but some subtleties of biological conditioning. Different people adjust to temperature differently and have different natural temperature comfort levels. If you've just come in from a hot day, and are very hot, you might want the AC pumped down for a while, until you cool off, then turned back up to a more comfortable level.

I don't think there's any conscious effort to make people want more AC. Some people just like it colder, and they can afford to pay for it.

Ted writes:

Ultimately, the use of indoor climate control is driven by two factors in developed countries; productivity and health requirements. The more competitive the environment, the more need for a controlled climate. The human body reacts to extremes in temperature in ways that diminish productivity. Elaboration of this is unnecessary for those with supervisory experience. The second factor derives largely from the first. People who spend the majority of their waking hours in climate-controlled environments lose much of their tolerance for temperature extremes and even something as mundane as acquiring a sufficiency of restful sleep in order to sustain one's place in the hypercompetitive work environment provides motivation to extend the climate control into the residential space.

If we do away with air conditioning, we will be forced to remain largely inactive during the hottest parts of the workday. Napping is a distinctly pleasurable and healthful activity, but it is an activity that diminishes competitive behavior where work periods are strictly regimented.

The current pope seems like a great guy, but I think he needs to get around a bit more and see how the industrialized/computerized working folk live.

Jesse writes:

I sometimes argue with my mother about the current Pope. She claims that he just doesn't really know what he's talking about, and is just very easily influenced by others, and has been swept up in others' ideologies. I have argued that he understands his positions better than she gives him credit for - he is actually well-versed and committed to his (economic) ideology.

After reading this about the deeply influential forces of the A/C marketing industry, I wonder if he's actually just in way over his head, and doesn't actually understand what he touts. Even at a superficial level.

Pedro Albuquerque writes:

Fact: American living spaces are overheated during winters and overcooled during summers. Movie theaters in America are cold to the point of being unbearable. It's surely wasteful and not good for your health. Probably as helpful for someone's productivity as drinking overly sugary drinks or driving oversized cars. Not every behavior can be explained by economics, some behaviors are just the result of bad habits, period.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Jon Murphy-You joke, but air conditioned buildings are a real positive externality. On a hot day, being able to just walk into a Wal-Mart, for example, and cool down, is a really great thing. And you don't have to pay for it, though you can choose to by buying things.

Neil S writes:

Pedro A,

One being's fact is another being's opinion. Do you perhaps have some evidence other than your assertions to substantiate these facts?

Am I to believe that theater owners deliberately waste money in order to create environments which are unbearable to their customers? And that no theater owner has discovered that they can increase their profits by raising temperatures in the summer?

Is it not possible that theater owners understand their business better than you (or I) do?

Neil S

JK Brown writes:

Actually, the "too cold" issue is about trying to balance. In restaurants, there is the balancing the cooks over a hot steam table/stove with the customer sitting in the far corner. There are those sitting near the windows getting the solar load, with those deep on the north side. There are wait staff moving about and customers sitting still.

And more importantly, there are, in the South, very hot people walking in the door wanting immediate relief from their personal heat load in a low humidity environment. Not to mention, after a bit they have damp clothing in a cool environment.

But there are also efficiency concerns. It is cheaper to maintain a cool environment than catch up as the heat of the day, the solar load or crowd load increases. Those events will cause more A/C running as they are increased load, but the stored conditioned air in the building, often created when metered power is cheaper, will buffer the need for power during peak power times.

And it is always easier to increase clothing or movement when cool than to strip down when hot in the summer and pull off a layer than put on more in the winter.

ThomasH writes:

OK. Case closed. Be it stipulated that the Po[e is not an economist. But if one accepts his argument that climate change is harmful, especially to the lest well off people, what IS one's duty?

My answer is to support a carbon tax.

Krist writes:

Megan McArdles' argument is flawed.

She claims that it costs less energy to cool a house in a warm place then to heat a house in a cold place, and that thus living a hot place with airco is more ecological than living in a colder places without airco.

However in Europe, and especially Germany houses that do not need any space heating, even in the depth of winter, are becoming quite common. The average new house in Scandinavia consumes less energy per m2 for heating then the average new house in Texas does for cooling.
Keeping a hous warm in a cold climate is a lot easier than keeping it cool in a hot (and especially humid) climate.

The office building I work in doesn't have AC. We had three weeks of temperatures above 35°c. Yet the climate in the building remained agreeable. This is a building that has been biult for energy efficiency. It's capitalism at work: Where energy is expensive and capital cheap, you subsitute one for the other. You invest in smarter, better buildings, and consume less energy in the process.

Alan writes:

In all the discussions of air conditioning, I have seen no mention of the number of lives saved. I think we are so sheltered and blessed, we have forgotten.

As recently as 2012, a North American derecho killed 82. A similar death toll from a hurricane in NYC would generate intense discussion, no doubt. The 1995 heat wave killed over 700 in Chicago and more in a broader swath. A disaster in human numbers close to Hurricane Katrina's death toll in New Orleans. But it does not register on the broader consciousness. The link between heat and cardiac arrest and other issues on the infirm, the young, the old, etc - often those in poverty without the same options to cope - is lost to the memory.

I would speculate that many of the same coercive big government moral scolds whol tell me that "if even one person dies from preventable outrage X, it's one too many!" When supporting their latest government intrusion are the same who support less AC.

I will say, my current home is built into a hillside, and while it regularly gets into the mid-90s this week, the walk out, floor-to-ceiling glass window basement in my home needs and has no AC on that floor.

So I am fan of any method of cooling - just don't move from scolding to government regulation because I want to choose how to live, and don't forget the hundreds of dead when you talk about the "horrors" of AC.

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