One day, in the not-so-far future, the Earth will be hotter. It already gets really freaking hot, but this is just the beginning. With heat becoming ever more unbearable, there’s one thing that’s certain: Air conditioners will save us all.
Right? Well, not quite.
A new study published recently in PLOS Medicine reminds us that lives will be lost elsewhere as long as air conditioners draw their energy from oil, gas, or coal. Why? Blame air pollution—our addiction to dirty fuels throws particulate matter and ozone into the air. Electricity production is already the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and as our ACs eat up more of it, we get more emissions.
The authors believe their study is the first to estimate how many people may die from an increased dependence on AC as temperatures rise. The conclusion? The increased air pollution could lead to an average of 654 more deaths annually in the U.S. from particulate matter, and 315 additional deaths from ozone by midcentury. Per the study, this could amount to a $9 billion annual drain on the economy.
These are just estimates based on models, and there’s a great deal of uncertainty in them. The analysis is, however, a cautionary exploration of how our dependence on oil, gas, and coal will become more deadly as we rev up our energy demand to cool entire buildings to avoid heat stress.
“Air conditioning saves lives from heat waves,” said Jonathan Patz, a co-author on the study who directs the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Global Health Institute, to Earther. “But if the electricity to run air conditioners requires coal-fired power plants, then we have a problem.”
The researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at how climate change itself would affect air pollution and, in turn, human health before turning their attention toward how air conditioning will make this even worse. The model fast-forwards to “the most realistic scenario” for our energy system, as Patz put it, in the year 2069. Here, our buildings haven’t changed much (in terms of structure and energy efficiency), and our electricity system has transitioned to more natural gas use and the retirement of some nuclear power plants. The team worked carefully to produce a future that seems most realistic given current energy and building trends.
However, the researchers were only able to use temperature data from a single month—July—and based a three-month summer on that.
The findings aren’t intended to scare people away from enjoying their summer days or to shame them from using their air conditioners. They’re really to highlight that these potential impacts are one possibility. A shift toward renewables and better-insulated buildings would make energy production 1) cleaner and 2) more efficient. Luckily, solar and renewables are winning around the world even if the federal government attempts to thwart their success. “Getting to clean energy can happen quite quickly,” Patz said.
Summers are growing warmer, and we’ll need cooler air—especially for our young students to focus during school hours, and for the sick and elderly. But using air conditioners shouldn’t be a careless act, not when some people are dying from the air pollution they create—and especially when these people are more likely to be low-income or of color.
That can change. Keep that in mind next time you crank your central cooling system to high.