The energy-efficient chill out

Looking for a reason to boil over? Try the intersection of global warming, air conditioners and deadly heat waves.


Andrew Leonard
September 18, 2007 3:33AM (UTC)

Even when How the World Works is not looking specifically for hard evidence of how the Bush administration has actively sabotaged the future, it's impossible to avoid stumbling over the wreckage. Let's talk air conditioning.

In his blog Environmental and Urban Economics, UCLA economist Matthew Kahn points to a paper by his UCLA colleague, law professor Ann Carlson, "Heat Waves, Global Warming, & Mitigation," published in May 2006 in "Issues in Legal Scholarship."

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Heat waves, writes Carlson, routinely kill more people in the U.S., on average, than any other natural disaster. But since the victims tend to be poor, and there is generally no catastrophic property damage for the media to fixate upon, the deadly toll of heat waves doesn't receive the same popular attention that earthquakes or hurricanes or floods do. Exacerbating matters -- if the current climate scientist consensus is correct -- more heat waves, and more deaths, are on the way.

Carlson dismisses the possibility that fewer deaths caused by cold weather in a future of warmer winters will balance out the heat wave devastation, though, truth be told, her paper doesn't devote more than a few lines to defending that position. Instead, she focuses her attention on what can be done proactively to reduce the number of deaths likely to be caused by future heat waves.

Among the various mitigation measures she discusses is increased access to air conditioning in the northeastern cities where people are likely to be most at risk from heat waves. She acknowledges the irony that more air conditioning usually means more electricity consumption, which means more electricity generation, which means more greenhouse gas emissions, and more global warming. So she devotes some time to discussing government-mandated improvements in energy efficiency for air conditioners.

The Clinton administration directed that the air conditioner energy-efficiency standard be raised from something called SEER 10 to SEER 13, which would have represented about a 30 percent improvement. But shortly after the Bush administration took power, the decision was made to roll that back to SEER 12, about a 20 percent improvement -- "despite the position," Carlson writes, "of its own Environmental Protection Agency that the rollback was based on a Department of Energy analysis that both overstated the costs of the SEER 13 standard and underestimated the resulting savings."

What's the difference between a 20 percent and a 30 percent air conditioner energy-efficiency standard?

Only about 12 400-megawatt power plants.

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This story, at least, has a happy ending: The Natural Resources Defense Council sued the Department of Energy and won, and as of Jan. 1, 2007, the original standard sought by the Clinton administration came into force.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Future historians will look back at this presidency and be baffled. What were we thinking?


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works

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