How air conditioning brought us skyscrapers, President Reagan, and saved countless lives

During those hot days of heat waves, many people take air conditioning for granted – one of the modern conveniences that make visiting the mall, living at work, or sleeping at home a little more comfortable.

But air conditioning has been a lifesaver for countless people and, as some suspect, a world-changing invention.

“Air conditioning changed the world,” Financial Times economist and columnist Tim Harford said in a 2017 interview with The Atlantic.

Harford, author of Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, dedicated one of these chapters to AC.

As Harford noted in an essay for the BBC, air conditioning has fueled the economy, including by making people more productive and enabling them to work longer and better. And it has had an impact on demographics too, he wrote, spurring the development of cities in countries with unbearable heat like Dubai and Singapore.

Air conditioning also changed the way buildings were constructed, sparking the construction of tall skyscrapers where air conditioning can provide cool air to the heat-drawing top floors, Harford said. Because computers are prone to heat, air conditioning has allowed server farms to thrive.

A political effect?

Air conditioning has also led to migration in countries like the United States, where it was responsible for the largest migration in that country’s history, according to author Steven Johnson, who wrote, How We Are Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World to have. Migration to the US sun belt – including some places that would have been almost habitable without air conditioning – would also have political implications.

Many of those who moved south were older and tended to vote Republicans, which resulted in a significant reshaping of the U.S. electoral college, Johnson said. In a 2014 interview with PBS, he stated that the Sun Belt coalition would be vital to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election.

“Now it is possible that Reagan was elected without air conditioning, but he would have had to form an entirely different political coalition to do so. So AC is absolutely a part of that story,” he said.

A boy and girl dip their heads in a fountain during last year’s deadly Montreal heatwave. (Graham Hughes / Canadian Press)

The invention goes back to the US engineer Willis Carrier – the so-called “father of air conditioning”.

In 1902, Carrier’s employer was asked to help a printer in Brooklyn who found the humidity in their facility was smearing the ink. Carrier found a way to dehumidify the air in the facility, Johnson said, but also discovered a beneficial side effect: it made the air cooler.

Carrier would continue to refine its invention, and eventually air conditioning would become a staple in most US homes, office buildings, and shopping malls.

However, much of the public was first exposed to air conditioning in the “burgeoning cinemas of the 1920s,” Harford noted.

“The enduring Hollywood tradition of summer blockbusters goes straight back to Carrier,” he wrote in the BBC article.

Most importantly, manufactured cold air was a lifesaver.

In 2013, a group of American researchers published a study looking at heat-related deaths in the United States and the impact of air conditioning on the country’s death rate.

They found that “the mortality effect of an extremely hot day” decreased by around 80 percent in the period from 1960 to 2004 compared to 1900 to 1959 – and this was essentially due to the introduction of a residential air conditioning system.

“It’s changed dramatically,” said Alan Barreca, environmental economist and associate professor at UCLA’s Institute for the Environment and Sustainability, and one of the study’s co-authors.

“Our vulnerability to extreme heat has decreased by 80 percent,” said Barreca. “We can confidently say that if we didn’t have air conditioning, [heat-related fatality rates] would be in the tens of thousands [annually]. “

Consideration of the environmental impact

Despite the advantages, air conditioning has a significant impact on the environment.

The International Energy Agency released a report last year that found that the increasing use of air conditioning in homes and offices around the world will be a major driver of global electricity demand over the next three decades.

According to the IAE, global energy requirements for air conditioning systems are expected to triple by 2050 and use as much electricity as all of China and India do today.

With fossil fuels still the main source of electricity, this demand will have a significant impact on climate change, according to the agency.

“The growing demand for electricity for air conditioning systems is one of the most critical blind spots in today’s energy debate,” said IEA Managing Director Fatih Birol in a press release on the 2018 study.

The International Energy Agency released a report in 2018 that found that the increasing use of air conditioning will be a major driver of global electricity demand over the next three decades. (CBC)

Maxime Roy, a doctor who works for the Montreal Health Department, agrees that air conditioning may be a life-saving measure, especially for those who are prone to heat, including young children and the elderly.

While air conditioning cools homes, the hot air being pumped outside can raise the temperature in the neighborhood, said Roy, also co-author of the report of 66 heat-related deaths in Montreal last year.

“If we live in a bigger city and everyone who is vulnerable or perhaps not so vulnerable to heat has air conditioning, we are actually making things worse in our city,” he said.

But Barreca believes the net benefits of air conditioning still outweigh the negatives.

“It seems like a worthwhile compromise – that it is worth protecting our lives,” he said. “And the question is, where else can we save? This seems too important to give up.”

Comments are closed.