June 19, 2015

The Pope, Climate Change & Air Conditioning

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.

7 Responses to The Pope, Climate Change & Air Conditioning

  1. 1no Yamanaka says:

    Oh brother, I hadn’t read that part of the encyclical. People are supposed to do without AC? I thought the pope was Catholic, not Amish.

  2. binks webelf says:

    Thank you, Mr. Tooley, for stating the blindingly obvious.

  3. Richard Kurtz says:

    I have central and window ac. Window in my bedroom so I don’t have to use the central all night. But I detect an underlying disbelief in global warming as a fact. If true it is an utterly stupid position today.

    • Wild Child says:

      That’s right, hang on to that AGW dogma. Only a deluded fool thinks humans can change the temperature of something as large as a planet.

      • MarcoPolo says:

        You totally miss the critical mass effect with that perspective.
        After all, a thousand lemmings couldn’t be wrong! Sheesh!

  4. MarcoPolo says:

    Many will argue that the Pope is not a Scientist, and I don’t know him well enough to know that he isn’t, but then I’m not a Scientist either, and I have no problem understanding the impact that Man has had on our small, precious planet.

    Some of the hottest weather conditions I’ve ever endured were experienced in Washington DC. While most of my life has been spent in the South, I knew the misery of Heat and rising Dew Points. Only to become a rabid consumer of that all too popular machine… the AC! Hallelujah!

    I did spend a few years without it in my old bungalow during the Nineties. I considered that my Monastic period. I realize life CAN be lived without it, I suspect that it’s much like the “camel’s nose” issue, and I fear that there’s no going back!

    Sadly for the Planet, Consumerism will be it’s demise.

  5. FYI: Pope Francis, while obviously not a ‘climate scientist’ (he’s the Pope, after all), actually DID study science and therefore might have a better grasp of fundamental scientific processes than most climate change deniers who have NOT studied science. (including the GOP climate change deniers who keep saying, “I’m not a scientist, but…”. ) Pope Francis, formerly Jorge Bergoglio, earned a technician’s degree in chemistry from a technical school in Buenos Aires and actually worked as a chemist before joining the seminary.

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