Heating the Planet with Cooling

Good news about the COVID-19 pandemic: it will kill fewer people than will die as a result of the changing climate.

Scientists are sounding alarms that the planet is heating up much faster than predicted. Our environment is changing more quickly than plant and animal species can adapt. The coronavirus affects mostly humans, but a warming planet affects all life.

Fortunately for first-world humans and their pets, air conditioning will protect them from an overheated earth. Or will it?

(Richard M. Nixon liked to have wood crackling in his fireplace. When the room became uncomfortably warm, he cranked up the air conditioning.)

More than 3.6 billion refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioning units are in use around the world, keeping our bodies comfortably cool, our food and beer cold and our pizzas frozen. In days of extreme heat, air conditioning keeps the most vulnerable of us alive. Those that don’t have AC want it and many will get it. Air-conditioning use increases at the rate of ten percent a year.

The problem is that all this cooling contributes to heating up our atmosphere. Cooling units use hydrofluorocarbon (HFC), the replacement for hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC), which the Environmental Protection Agency banned in 2010. (Who knows, the current E.P.A. may bring them back.) HFC is not as bad as HCFC, but it’s still a greenhouse gas being diffused into the atmosphere.

Cooling equipment uses electricity, a lot of it, and not very efficiently. Most equipment sold today is only one-half to one-third as efficient as what is available today. And as we know, most methods of electricity production releases greenhouse gases. Clean coal, anyone?

As with most everything, there are no simple solutions.

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