Today, the Washington Post published an op-ed in which Cox imagines a world without air conditioning. Cox begins his essay by asserting that air conditioners increase global temperatures, which, perversely, lead to greater demand for air conditioners:
In a country that's among the world's highest greenhouse-gas emitters, air conditioning is one of the worst power-guzzlers. The energy required to air-condition American homes and retail spaces has doubled since the early 1990s. Turning buildings into refrigerators burns fossil fuels, which emits greenhouse gases, which raises global temperatures, which creates a need for -- you guessed it -- more air-conditioning.That is pretty tough claim to substantiate, but is not the most difficult assertion that Cox makes. Cox also argues that substantially reducing the use of air conditioning would dramatically alter society. For example, according to Cox, the air conditioner-free workplace would become a site of relaxation and, well, warmth:
In a world without air conditioning, a warmer, more flexible, more relaxed workplace helps make summer a time to slow down again. Three-digit temperatures prompt siestas. Code-orange days mean offices are closed. Shorter summer business hours and month-long closings -- common in pre-air-conditioned America -- return.Cox also believes that an air conditioning-deprived Congress would change for the better:
Business suits are out, for both sexes. And with the right to open a window, office employees no longer have to carry sweaters or space heaters to work in the summer. After a long absence, ceiling fans, window fans and desk fans (and, for that matter, paperweights) take back the American office.
Best of all, Washington's biggest business -- government -- is transformed. In 1978, 50 years after air conditioning was installed in Congress, New York Times columnist Russell Baker noted that, pre-A.C., Congress was forced to adjourn to avoid Washington's torturous summers, and "the nation enjoyed a respite from the promulgation of more laws, the depredations of lobbyists, the hatching of new schemes for Federal expansion and, of course, the cost of maintaining a government running at full blast."It is certainly debatable, however, whether doing less would improve Congress. Besides, national lawmakers take a summer hiatus in August - during the hottest part of the DC summer.
Post-A.C., Congress again adjourns for the summer, giving "tea partiers" the smaller government they seek. During unseasonably warm spring and fall days, hearings are held under canopies on the Capitol lawn. What better way to foster open government and prompt politicians to focus on climate change?
Cox also believes that cutting off the air conditioners would lead to greater socializing in cities and even reduce crime and heat-related deaths:
Saying goodbye to A.C. means saying hello to the world. With more people spending more time outdoors -- particularly in the late afternoon and evening, when temperatures fall more quickly outside than they do inside -- neighborhoods see a boom in spontaneous summertime socializing.These claims seem far fetched -- and even sound contrary to existing crime statistics that often show a increase during summer months precisely because people spend more time outside of their homes.
Rather than cowering alone in chilly home-entertainment rooms, neighbors get to know one another. Because there are more people outside, streets in high-crime areas become safer. As a result of all this, a strange thing happens: Deaths from heat decline. Elderly people no longer die alone inside sweltering apartments, too afraid to venture outside for help and too isolated to be noticed. Instead, people look out for one another during heat waves, checking in on their most vulnerable neighbors.
Conservative bloggers have jumped on Cox's op-ed in order to bash environmental reform movements. I am not a conservative, and I generally support the move to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. Cox's op-ed, however, does not make a strong case for reducing the use of air conditioning.
Cox does not substantiate his claims with empirical data, and some of them seem to go against longstanding statistics (e.g., crime increasing when people emerge from winters indoors). Furthermore, it is not at all clear that a more relaxed workplace -- including for members of Congress -- would benefit society.
Furthermore, while Cox attacks air conditioners, many of the same arguments could apply to heating systems, which Cox does not criticize. Finally, Cox's analysis does not seem applicable in parts of the country that experience extreme heat more routinely than northern cities.
Greenhouse gases are a serious problem; so is summer heat. Cox's far-fetched claims do not make a persuasive argument for discarding air conditioners. Perhaps he does a better job in his forthcoming book.
UPDATE: Kathy Kattenburg of The Moderate Voice offers a very sensible critique of Cox's article. See Speaking of Simplistic Solutions to Complex Problems.
Althouse approaches the topic with sarcasm. See If you really believed in global warming, you would turn off your air conditioning.