Who knew air conditioning could add another 20% to the world’s emissions? High power use and nasty refrigerants. Stan Cox, author of “Losing Our Cool”. Guus Velders, Netherlands Environment Agency, expert on ozone and climate. Michael Sivak, U. of Michigan, on global expansion of air conditioning. Music: “Mercy” by The Dave Matthews Band. Radio Ecoshock 120919 1 hour.

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Stage one: the Earth gets hotter and hotter due to growing greenhouse gas emissions.

Stage two: humans cool themselves artificially with machines.

Stage Three: air conditioning makes the world even hotter, until we run out of fossil fuels to run the machines, or extinction takes us down.

It’s an obvious progression, another adaptation to what we’ve done. I counted air-conditioning as a minor factor, another irritant to living systems. Now I’ve learned it’s a major vector, a force that could help tip us into runaway climate change.

Everybody knows air-conditioners suck up lots of energy, most of it powered by coal. We’ve heard rumors a billion people in Asia are buying them. I’ve known for 20 years the refrigerants are super global warming gases – but those tiny amounts hiding in the back of our refrigerators and air-conditioners can’t amount to all that much…

Wait until you hear the truth about air-conditioning. We’ve got three powerful interviews. Stan Cox is author of the best guide, a book called “Losing Our Cool”. His latest article in the Guardian newspaper gives us the global picture.

Dr. Guus Velders is from Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, and he advises world bodies on ozone depletion and climate change.

Dr. Michael Sivak from the University of Michigan wrote the best studies on the global growth of air-conditioning.

We wrap up with a new song from The Dave Matthews Band which captures our situation so well. It’s called “Mercy” – hear the whole song at the end of the show.

Are we heading to air-conditioned Hell? I’m Alex Smith. Tune in to our guests this week, and find out for yourself.


This week we’re looking at air-conditioning. Are we heading into artificially cooled caves as the outdoors becomes unbearably hot? In some places, anyone who can has already abandoned the summer streets, travelling between air conditioned rooms in air conditioned cars. If the grid fails, or electricity becomes too much, what then?

All the while, the gases used to cool your food in ships and trucks, in a billion refrigerators and hundreds of millions of air conditioners for homes, malls, offices and factories, is escaping into the upper atmosphere, like a blanket warming the world.


In November 2010, Radio Ecoshock interviewed Stan Cox, author of an excellent book on the over-all impacts of air-conditioning, titled “Losing Our Cool“. We mostly talked about the United States, how air conditioning has changed the way people interact, and the huge amount of energy wasted.

Stan’s authority on air-conditioning has gone global, just as air-conditioning is exploding in the developing world, including China and India. His most recent article for Yale 360 was republished in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. It’s a scary read, with a little known twist that could help tip us into runaway climate change.

Stan Cox is a senior scientist at a non-profit agricultural research institute in Salina, Kansas.

This past June I was in Page Arizona. It has hardly rained there for two years. The temperature was 104 degrees in the shade – 40 Celsius. It was punishing. When people stopped for coffee, they left their vehicles running to keep them cool. The streets were deserted by ten in the morning, it was just too hot. Everyone spends the day hiding in some air-conditioned building.

I asked whether there will be a mass exodus of people from the American South, when electricity prices get too high. Now we’re into a series of record hot years, the hottest July in American records – how long can the Sun Belt residents keep their cool?

Stan’s article for Yale 360 – I read it in the Guardian – took us out of America, and into a whole new world of air conditioning. Where is the big growth of air conditioning now?

Northern India just suffered the world’s biggest power blackout. Electricity for 700 million people went off, for a few days. A lot of that was due to demand for air conditioning. We talk about India’s love-affair with cooling, powered by coal.

Then we cover the growing A.C. giant of the world: China.


Of course, we could always listen to Rush. Maybe he’s not high on a hundred painkillers any more, but Rush Limbaugh’s brain takes him on some strange excursions. I play you a quick clip, as Rush explains how air conditioning makes you think global warming is happening, even when it’s not.

Thanks Rush. It just FEELS hotter because we have air-conditioning…Never mind all those temperature records measured by new-fangled thermometers. Or the melting poles. Who needs science when we’ve got you! Try Radio Ecoshock instead.


Why are we using super global warming gases, thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide in air conditioners? Let’s find out, from Dr. Guus Velders.

I found out about Guus from the Guardian article by Stan Cox.

Let me give you one astounding paragraph from that article in the Guardian newspaper published on July 10th 2012. This blew my mind:

According to a recent forecast by Guus Velders of the Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health and the Environment and his colleagues, refrigerants that accumulate in the atmosphere between now and 2050 (increasingly HFCs, mostly from refrigeration and air conditioning) will add another 14 to 27 percent to the increased warming caused by all human-generated carbon dioxide emissions.

So we’re not talking about all the greenhouse gases coming from generating electricity to power billions of air conditioners, as frightening as that is. No, this Dutch report is just about the refrigerants, the chemicals hiding in the back of all our refrigerators and air conditioners – adding as much as another 25% to all our warming of the planet!

Could the cooling chemicals in your refrigerator or air conditioner help tip the world into massive heating? “Yes” says expert Guus Velders, as billions more units are sold in the developing world, using the same chemicals.

Dr. Guus Velders is an expert’s expert. He works at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency as a senior scientist on ozone depletion, climate change, and air quality. Velders advises the Dutch Government, the European Environment Agency, and makes assessments for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations Environment Program and more.

As you know, the science of how small amounts of a chemical can radically change the heat-trapping ability of the atmosphere isn’t new. The Irish scientist John Tyndall made this discovery as early as 1860. But now we are using relatively new chemicals, known as CFC’s and HFC’s. Perhaps we should lay the groundwork with CFC’s, also known by the DuPont trade name “Freon” – and their role in damaging the ozone.

To stop this ozone damage, the Montreal Protocol, first agreed in 1987, called for a ban on CFC’s, with some exceptions for developing countries. The cooling industry provided a replacement that was safe for consumers, but not for the climate.

Moving to 2009, in this You tube video Velders said the Montreal Protocol accomplished more to control climate change than the first stage of the Kyoto Protocol. But he warned we needed to reign in HFC’s or lose any progress. At that time, Velders reported HFC emissions could be the equivalent to 6 or even 8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, by 2010.

In my reading of graphs presented in his 2009 paper, HFC consumption by developing countries appears to reach the same levels as developed countries around 2015 to 2018. The radiative forcing from HFC use in developing countries equals all developed countries a little later, around 2025 to 2030 – but then takes off upward in a very steep curve, indicating big impacts on the climate.


We talked about how these refrigerants escape. Velders gives the example of the hundreds of millions of car air conditioners. Because there is so much shaking during travel, about 15% of car refrigerants escape into the atmosphere every year.

Refrigerators and air conditioners are always being replaced. While some European countries have strict provisions for recapturing the coolants for incineration, most of the world just dumps the old machinery. The refrigerants escape into the atmosphere, adding super warming gases.

Dr. Guus Velders is also a published expert on the relationships between ozone damage and climate change. In fact, he was a lead author in an IPCC special report on ozone depletion and climate change.

That’s a subject that stumps many people. Countless well-meaning people say we have to stop the ozone hole to save the planet from climate change. The public gets the two issues confused, and they are very different.


Dr. Michael Sivak is the director of Sustainable World-wide Transportation at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. He’s looked at the energy we use to heat and cool, coming up with useful suggestions for where you might want to live, who’s next for the air-conditioning boom, and how the world should count carbon emissions.

We take a lightening tour through three of his papers. The earliest is called: “Where to live in the United States: Combined energy demand for heating and cooling in the 50 largest metropolitan areas.

It’s intriguing. Energy costs, with the exception of natural gas, just keep going up. Around 35 million Americans moved around last year anyway, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2011.

Where should people go to pay the lowest energy bills, and reduce their climate footprint? Sivak found people in San Diego have the lowest energy footprint, while places like Milwaukee have the highest.

That paper was published in 2008. Since then, we’ve had some scorching years, with milder winters – with more to come as the climate changes. According to Sivak’s work, from Florida right across the South, Americans already use more energy for cooling than heating. If the world warms a few degrees, places like New England might require less energy?

Then we move to the global scale, with Michael Sivak’s article titled “Potential energy demand for cooling in the 50 largest metropolitan areas of the world: Implications for developing countries.

In the U.S. Sivak found heating homes still using more energy than cooling. Does that hold true for the biggest world cities? Not at all. The developing mega-cities are toward the south, with much hotter climates. Cooling demands must have been a factor in last summer’s world’s largest blackout across Northern India.

Now more people live in cities than in rural areas, and that trend is accelerating. We know leafy, natural landscapes add cooling, while cities develop a “heat island” effect which raises temperatures several degrees. Add in the trend toward higher incomes, and global warming – I worry people will need air conditioning in cities, just to survive. That will make climate change and energy shortages even worse.

Perhaps you’ve seen rankings of countries based on their emissions per capita. Michael Sivak says those aren’t fair, unless we also count each nation’s real need for heating and cooling. That’s in a recent publication in “American Scientist”, written with Brandon Schoettle. The article is called “Accounting for Climate in Ranking Countries’ Carbon Dioxide Emissions“. In a way, Michael, is building on his earlier studies.

He seems to be saying, people in other countries have a right to be as comfortable as we are. If we ever agree on a fair distribution of greenhouse gas emissions, we have to count that in. That isn’t necessarily bad for developed countries. Americans may have a right to a certain amount of energy because their climate demands it – while a balmy Pacific island state does not.

Calculating carbon allowances based on heating and cooling needs seems like common sense. We’ll see if international negotiators pick up on this.


Remember, in our current rush to air-condition everywhere, Dr. Gus Velders estimates that by 2050, the burst of energy use combined with super warming gases in the refrigerants, could add up to 20% of our current total emissions. It doesn’t take much to tip a climate into a new hothouse age. Maybe that will do it.

In the movie sci-fi movie “Brazil” by Terry Gilliam, every home and indoor space is climate controlled by machines. Otherwise, who could stand what is lurking outdoors. We may be there already. As our first guest Stan Cox told us, it took a generation for Americans to install 100 million air-conditioners. Fifty million were sold in China in 2010 alone.

The strange thing is: as Elizabeth Rosenthal makes clear in her excellent series in The New York Times, we have much safer alternatives. Commercial installations (like shopping malls!) could use ammonia as a coolant. They just have to keep the ammonia outside.

Watch this New York Times video with Elizabeth Rosenthal to get the images and facts on the cooling mania.

Even carbon dioxide itself can be a refrigerant, and there are others. Greenpeace developed a “green fridge” that was manufactured in Cuba. I’ve seen one and it works great. The industry could switch over tomorrow if there was enough public awareness and demand.

You can even find You tube videos of how to hook up an air conditioner to as little as 600 watts of solar panels, keeping a house cool enough for comfort without burning fossil fuels.

As we feel the rumble of the on-coming climate train, I’m not going to count on prayer alone. Activism and action can preserve a livable world. Next week, we’ll hear about the beginnings, in localization and the transition movement.

I’m Alex Smith. You can contact me through our web site at ecoshock.org I always appreciate your feed-back, tips, and ideas.

Radio Ecoshock isn’t a music show, even though good sound often sustains me. But when I heard this new song by The Dave Matthews Band, I had to share it with you. It’s called “Mercy”.