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When the AC Isn’t Enough

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The first big heat wave is about to hit the Northeast. I am currently experiencing my own personal early heat, thanks to my wife having a conference in Puerto Vallarta this week, which is bloody hot, even for here. June is I think the hottest month of the year in much of Mexico, before the monsoons come. Hermosillo and Guadalajara have been scorching and even Oaxaca has been insanely hot until just the last few days.

In any case, enough of my whining about my hard life on the Mexican beach. The point here is that as these heat waves become more and more common, our technological fixes to keep ourselves alive in these places unfit for human habitation without AC technology are not going to be enough.

Gloria Gellot, 79, takes a careful seat in a kitchen chair in front of her only air-conditioning unit, massaging her knees. She’s hung a sheet in the doorway to keep the cool air in the kitchen, and drawn shades to keep the sun – already blazing in May – out of her second-floor New Orleans apartment. Her home was badly damaged by Hurricane Ida in 2021, and heat radiates from the gutted walls.

“All the heat’s up here,” she says. “I don’t have to go out in the sun. I get a suntan inside.”

Gellot’s sweltering apartment is not just uncomfortable; it’s dangerous. Extreme heat was linked to some 11,000 deaths and 120,000 emergency room visits last year. Heat injuries don’t just happen in sun-soaked fields – older adults like Gellot who live alone and cannot escape stifling, poorly insulated units are among the most at risk.

Conventional wisdom and public policy have long operated on the assumption that, no matter how bad the heat gets, air conditioning will be enough to keep people safe. But the last few years of record-breaking temperatures are shattering that myth.

“The home environment can actually be a substantial risk in and of itself,” said Jaime Madrigano, a public health researcher with Johns Hopkins University. “We find, during extreme heat events, that more people die in their homes than in other types of places. They’re not making it to the hospital.”

“The types of [cooling] systems that we sold 10 years ago are not able to keep up with the weather we have,” said Simi Hoque, an architectural engineer at Drexel University who studies how building design contributes to indoor heat.

As temperatures climb, air conditioners – which work by sucking in indoor air, heating it via compressor and then dumping that heat outside – must work exponentially harder. According to Texas A&M climate scientist Andrew Dessler, keeping a home steady at 75F requires about 30% more power when outside temperatures creep from 95F to 98F.

Some older AC units simply cannot keep up with those demands. Even if they can, many residents can’t afford higher energy bills. Sharp rises in energy demand stress electrical grids: in 2021, a heatwave in the Pacific north-west triggered rolling blackouts, which led to at least 600 deaths.

Many buildings – particularly those in cooler, northern US cities – are simply not designed or weatherized for the new heat, said Hoque. She became interested in indoor heat while working on an air-quality study in Philadelphia, where she lives.

“When we talked to household members, [heat was] the thing that kept coming up,” she said. Participants told her: “‘We can’t be in our upstairs bedrooms during the summer unless we have the window unit on, and we only have one window unit, and so everybody sleeps in the same room,’” Hoque recalled.

And like everything else in our racist nation, this affects people of color at higher proportions than whites:

Black and Hispanic communities, in particular, are more likely to live in urban heat islands, where asphalt traps more heat than greener, typically wealthier neighborhoods. The disparity is a legacy of decades of redlining and other racist housing policies. People at higher risk of indoor heat also “tend to have fewer resources to be able to pay for things like air conditioning or fans”, said Hoque, and these factors have serious public health implications: in New York City, according to state data about last year’s record heat, Black residents are twice as likely to die of heat than their white counterparts.

Even when heat isn’t deadly, it’s damaging. Heat triggers respiratory distress, acute cardiovascular events, disrupted sleep and impaired cognition – in other words, heat makes it hard to breathe, hard to sleep, hard to think.

“It’s unbearable,” said Dee Dee Green, who lives in New Orleans’ Hollygrove neighborhood, a lower-income, primarily Black neighborhood bordered by highways. Green said her AC has broken the last three summers in a row. She suspects it is due to the unit overworking.

On top of everything else, I don’t think most white Americans realize that we are one serious power outage away from tens of thousands of deaths in Phoenix or New Orleans or Las Vegas, or maybe even New York.

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