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An ambiguous ‘climate change adaptation’ case for air-conditioning

One of the weird arguments for guns by the US gun lobby is to distribute more guns so the innocent can protect themselves. This argument for air conditioning has similar elements. Air conditioning saves lives when populations are exposed to extreme heat events although the proliferation of such technology, will increase the number of extreme heat events by enormously increasing electricity usage particularly in developing countries where carbon-based fuels are likely to be used.  These adaptations provide temporary relief to extreme climate change impacts but increase the frequency of such impacts.  Adaptations increase the mitigation task.  Scary and plausible stuff given the massive move to air conditioning in countries like China and India.

“Adapting to Climate Change: The Remarkable Decline in the U.S. Temperature-Mortality Relationship Over the 20th Century”
MIT Department of Economics Working Paper No. 12-29


Abstract: Adaptation is the only strategy that is guaranteed to be part of the world’s climate strategy. Using the most comprehensive set of data files ever compiled on mortality and its determinants over the course of the 20th century, this paper makes two primary discoveries. First, we find that the mortality effect of an extremely hot day declined by about 80% between 1900-1959 and 1960-2004. As a consequence, days with temperatures exceeding 90°F were responsible for about 600 premature fatalities annually in the 1960-2004 period, compared to the approximately 3,600 premature fatalities that would have occurred if the temperature-mortality relationship from before 1960 still prevailed. Second, the adoption of residential air conditioning (AC) explains essentially the entire decline in the temperature-mortality relationship. In contrast, increased access to electricity and health care seem not to affect mortality on extremely hot days. Residential AC appears to be both the most promising technology to help poor countries mitigate the temperature related mortality impacts of climate change and, because fossil fuels are the least expensive source of energy, a technology whose proliferation will speed up the rate of climate change.

4 comments to An ambiguous ‘climate change adaptation’ case for air-conditioning

  • Sir Henry Casingbroke

    I know it sounds heartless and even perhaps racist but more people surviving hot days means there are… more people. This whole problem of global warming is vastly exacerbated by more people. Survivability of extremely hot days adds to the population and thus demand for CO2-emitting relief. There you have it, Moron Institute of Technology. Thomas Malthus placed the longer-term stability of the economy above short-term expediency. And so the malthusian chooks are coming home to roost. As are blue feathered kookaburras, if I may be permitted this sneaky segue. Spotted two of them here outside my deck in Forestville — a long way from New Guinea, North Queensland and northern WA. So, to paraphrase Johnny Burgess, I say, come on down you tropical species. We live in interesting times, H.

  • Michael

    The costs associated with air-conditioning aren’t limited to the purchase and operation of air-conditioners, but the costs of upgrading the grid to cope with increased peak demand on very hot days.

    I don’t have air-conditioning at the moment, partly because it is really only needed for about 10-14 days of extreme temperatures. Even a poorly built weatherboard house with minimal insulation can stay cool during days where there are daytime highs brought down by afternoon cool changes. The only really intolerable days are when the temperature remains high throughout the night.

    It’s bordering on criminally negligent for excessively large new houses to still be built without any passive cooling features like eaves or effective insulation and then fitted with large air-conditioners. I’m afraid geo-engineering is looming as the only solution left since mitigation has failed.

  • hc

    Sir Henry , Blue-winged kookaburra’s in Sydney? One for the record books. I haven’t heard of them further south than Brisbane. Did you get a photo or were you sun-affected at the time?

    Yes population size a problem but less of a problem than what the population does.

  • Sir Henry Casingbroke

    Definitely a blue-winged. It was quite close. What drew me to it was the screeching. It was quite close, sitting on the phone wire. Brilliant blue in the wings, navy blue tail. I was quite sober at the time your honour. With regard to your final pontification: say a percentage of population does something then if a population as a whole is more then the percentage who does represents a greater number of individuals – the two are inextricably linked. Furthermore, if those inclined to use airconditioning form a percentage of a population (those who can afford it, need it, desire it) then, if they survive a heatwave – which they may not have otherwise, it encourages them to use it again at another time; a moral hazard, if you will.

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