Lack of Air Conditioning, Not Climate Change, Is the Real Summer Heat Wave Threat

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Climate change policies often pose a greater risk than climate change itself, and that is especially true during summer heat waves. Each new heat wave invariably brings media coverage drawing overstated links to climate change, but the bigger threat to public health comes from climate activists’ war on affordable air conditioning.

It has always been the case that summer heat can be deadly, especially during heat waves, and the evidence points away from any appreciable increase attributable to anthropogenic climate change. In fact, the data show much worse heat waves in 1930s than today, though there has been a smaller uptick since the 1960s.       

Far more important is access to air conditioning, which greatly reduces heat-related deaths where available. Studies show that widespread air conditioning use in the United States has considerably negated the health impact of high temperatures and prevented an estimated 18,000 heat-related deaths annually. The benefits would be even greater if and when the rest of the world acquires air conditioning, especially the nearly 3 billion people who live in tropical nations where residential air conditioning is still relatively uncommon.

That is where the cure-worse-than-the-disease part comes in. Climate activists have targeted air conditioning in numerous ways, all of them compromising affordability.

Congress passed production quotas on refrigerants called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) on the grounds that they contribute to climate change. Most residential systems use one such HFC for which the price has skyrocketed to the point that replacing refrigerant lost from a leak costs several hundred dollars more than it did last year. New systems designed to use one of the supposedly environmentally friendly alternative refrigerants will also carry a hefty premium, which is why their producers, including Honeywell and Chemours, joined environmentalists in lobbying Congress to push the cheaper HFCs out of their way. Thus, both repairs of existing systems or purchases of new ones have been adversely impacted.

The Kigali Amendment, a United Nations climate treaty, imposes overlapping global restrictions on these affordable HFCs. The Senate may soon decide whether or not to ratify the Kigali Amendment, adding yet more environmental red tape to air conditioning.

Operating costs have also shot up thanks to climate policy. The war on coal and natural gas has contributed to electric rate increases—up 12 percent in the last year alone. Thus, low-income (and even some not so low-income) households now need to be careful about how much they run their air conditioners.

Overall, both owning and running an air conditioning system has gotten costlier in 2022, and that trend will very likely continue for as long as the climate agenda does.

Thanks to climate change, a future that is slightly warmer than today is quite possible. But thanks to climate change policy, a future with less air conditioning to counter the effects of summer heat is more likely.