The Pope, Climate Change & Air Conditioning

By Mark Tooley Published on June 19, 2015

The new papal encyclical addressing climate change comes as I’m having central air conditioning installed in my Northern Virginia home. Likely I’m one of the last people in the notoriously muggy Washington, DC area not to have it. For nine years since purchasing my current home, which is 75 years old with radiator heat, I’ve postponed installation, trying to pretend it wasn’t needed, relying on overhead fans, window and floor units. After all, I largely grew up in the 1970s without it. My parents’ home didn’t have it (until after my brother and I moved out!). Neither did my elementary school. Central air was experienced in grocery stores, movie theaters, public libraries, and my grandparents’ house.

Currently I’m out of town, in pleasantly temperate Grand Rapids, Michigan, attending an Acton Institute conference on faith and free markets. But I can’t wait to get home and experience my new central air conditioning.

Interestingly, the new papal encyclical warns against air conditioning as a supposed contributor to climate change:

55. Some countries are gradually making significant progress, developing more effective controls and working to combat corruption. 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.

Ironically, a Slate.com column, which praises the papal encyclical as “more like a poetry slam at an Occupy Wall Street rally than a formal church document,” notes that in poor countries like India air conditioning is becoming a “human rights” issue:

An estimated 300 million people there—one-quarter of the country—has no access to electricity at all. Just last month the country endured the fifth-deadliest heat wave in world history. In India air conditioning is increasingly becoming a human rights issue. This is what the pope is talking about when he discusses climate change and poverty in the same breath.

But in fact the papal encyclical implies that Indians should go without air conditioning, and electricity for that matter, as 300 million joining the grid ostensibly would heat the planet. Despite rhetoric about renewables, the provision of electricity to the 1.3 billion in the world currently without it primarily requires more fossil fuel powered electrical generators. African and Asian countries are busily building mostly coal powered plants.

Should we in the wealthy West tell the 1.3 billion that they should live permanently without electricity? Many hundreds of millions more have unreliable sources of electricity. And most people globally have no air conditioning. Would they be wrong for wanting it?

Air conditioning is not a frivolous luxury. It literally saves lives. Even in wealthy France, over 14,000 died during the infamous 2003 heat wave for lack of air conditioning. How many more die needlessly around the world during hot weather? Air conditioning is one of modernity’s greatest achievements. No longer do millions, at least in America, swelter in factories or restaurant kitchens in avoidable extreme heat. No longer are the urban poor forced to spend Summer nights in public parks or fire escapes. No longer do large numbers of elderly perish from overheating. Air conditioning vastly improves living and working conditions for hundreds of millions, and has allowed barren, almost uninhabitable deserts to become comfortable homes and work places for millions.

Climate ideology in the wealthy West argues that increasingly unreliable computer models about the possible future impact of possible future global temperatures should require that the global poor remain poor, without electricity, without air conditioning, even though there’s no guarantee that limiting fossil fuel use will demonstrably affect future climate.

The papal encyclical sincerely professes to speak on behalf of the poor. But it’s chiefly the poor who would bear the brunt of radically reduced carbon emissions. Shouldn’t we pray and work for a day when there is universal global access to electricity and air conditioning so that the poor can enjoy at least some of our comforts?

I’m looking forward to my new central air conditioning next week, which I will count as a divine blessing. But I’ll be thinking about the several billion, many of them in even hotter and muggier climates than Washington, D.C, who need it more than I.

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