After suffering through another summer of record-breaking heat, it’s time to rethink our century-old love affair with air-conditioning

Before modern cooling machines enveloped civilization in frigid air, humans living in hot climes used all sorts of techniques to stay reasonably comfy. Egyptians fashioned homes with mud and stone. Domed mosques and temples in the Middle East and India funneled hot air upward. Dwelling in subterranean chambers kept denizens of Cappadocia in Turkey and Petra in Jordan from breaking a sweat. Some cultures draped water-soaked fabric over open windows; others topped their roofs with thatch or earth to diffuse heat. Roman emperors had their plebeians haul snow from distant mountaintops and pile it along palace walls. More recently, residents of America’s Deep South kept their homes airy with vaulted ceilings, spacious front rooms, wraparound porches, and picture windows.

Then, in the early twentieth century, a tenacious young engineer named Willis Carrier introduced us to the miracle of indoor climate control. Today, the company that Carrier founded earns $11.4 billion in annual sales, but its products, having revolutionized the way Americans live, remain the least efficient appliances in a typical household. They devour 16 percent of an average household’s annual energy tab, producing the equivalent of 2,290 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. “We’ve always taken air-conditioning for granted,” Gordon Holness, president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), told me recently. “We’ve got into these lazy patterns because energy has been readily available and cheap. Now we’re realizing there isn’t an endless supply.”

The dilemma isn’t all that much different from that faced by the automobile. On its evolutionary time line, the air conditioner today is about where the automobile was in the 1970s. It is a pathetically inefficient machine to which we have become both psychologically addicted and economically dependent, blind to its environmental footprint. Since Carrier introduced his “chillers” more than a century ago, the basic mechanics of how we cool air haven’t changed. It’s fair to say that the most state-of-the-art air conditioner today is akin to a gas-guzzling muscle car from 40 years ago. To carry the analogy forward, the automotive industry finally responded, albeit at a snail’s pace, with improved fuel economy, smaller cars, and, more recently, hybrids, hydrogen cells, plug-in electrics, and various types of alternatively powered vehicles. Unfortunately, air conditioners don’t have an equivalent of the Prius, at least not yet.

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