A Vicious Cycle: Air Conditioners Making Global Warming Worse, Warns Study

MADISON, Wisc. — As summertime wears on and the mercury rises across America, many will surely crank the air conditioning to full blast — and place the blame on climate change. Turns out those A/Cs may be contributing to the problem: A new study shows that their increased use actually makes warming worse.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin say air conditioners further degrade air quality and generally compound the toll on human health created by air pollution. According to the study, as many as a thousand additional deaths will occur every year in the Eastern United States alone due to the increased use of fossil fuels to cool steadily warming buildings where people live and work.

Air conditioners outside windows
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin say air conditioners further degrade air quality and generally compound the toll on human health created by air pollution

“What we found is that air pollution will get worse,” explains study lead author David Abel, a graduate student at the school, in a statement. “There are consequences for adapting to future climate change.”

The study combines data from five different models and predictions to forecast higher summer energy use.

With summertime temperatures expected to get hotter across the globe every year, there’s no doubt that increased use of air conditioning will save lives; but, with the good comes the bad too.  “We’re trading problems. Heat waves are increasing and increasing in intensity. We will have more cooling demand requiring more electricity,” argues senior author and environmental studies professor Jonathan Patz. “But if our nation continues to rely on coal-fired power plants for some of our electricity, each time we turn on the air conditioning we’ll be fouling the air, causing more sickness and even deaths.”

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Overall, the climate model forecasts an additional 13,000 deaths annually caused by higher levels of fine, particulate matter in the air. Researchers say another 3,000 will caused by ozone in the eastern U.S. by 2050. The vast majority of those deaths will likely occur because of atmospheric conditions, but about 1,000 of them are predicted to be caused by increased fossil fuel use for air conditioners.

“Climate change is here and we’re going to need to adapt,” says Abel. “But air conditioning and the way we use energy is going to provide a feedback that will exacerbate air pollution as temperatures continue to get warmer.”

The full study was published July 3, 2018 in the journal Public Library of Science (PLOSMedicine.

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