A/C on the hot seat

Just how much is our air-conditioning warming the planet?

Plenty, says Stan Cox, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Land Institute in Kansas.

At the same time it's cooling us -- and not entirely to our benefit, but more on that later -- it's consuming vast quantities of energy.  Add in an expected spike of growth, as more and more developing countries add more and more units, and it could have an impact on climate change, he writes in a fascinating new post on Yale Environment 360.

In this country alone, because summers are growing hotter and homes are getting bigger (and more of us are installing A/C) energy consumed by residential air-conditioning doubled between 1993 and 2005.

Worldwide, Cox says, it's possible that world consumption of energy for cooling could explode tenfold by 2050.

We have lost more than a substantial number of kilowatt hours. We have lost the physiological ability to withstand heat -- something I can easily attest to. I spend my days in an office that is often too chilly for my comfort. My husband works in a metal studio cooled only by a fan and the shade of a few trees. At the end of the day, he's perfectly comfortable on the front porch. I sit in the rocker next to him for a while...and then start to think about going inside. Where it's usually air-conditioned.

Speaking of porches, Cox also says our neighborhoods are less neighborly because we're not out and about in warm weather. We're inside staying cool.

Cox brings this up because it may not be too late for other countries to learn from our lesson. We may be cooling too much, or the wrong way, or the wrong places. Is there any REAL reason for so many people to live in central Florida in summer?

"The time window for debating the benefits and costs of air conditioning on a global scale is narrowing — once a country goes down the air-conditioned path, it is very hard to change course," Cox writes.

"Currently, efforts to develop low-energy methods for warm climates are in progress on every continent, he writes. "Passive cooling projects in China, India, Egypt, Iran, Namibia, and other countries combine traditional technologies — like wind towers and water evaporation — with newly designed, ventilation-friendly architectural features. Solar adsorption air conditioning performs a magician’s trick, using only the heat of the sun to cool the indoor air, but so far it is not very affordable or adaptable to home use. Meanwhile in India and elsewhere, cooling is being achieved solely with air pumped from underground tunnels."

But will it be enough? That isn't yet clear.

Air-conditioning is not a new topic for Cox. In 2010, he wrote the book, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways To Get Through the Summer.