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Feeling the heat

Mann and Schuetz assert that increasing access to and investing heavily in air-conditioning is the solution to saving lives and preventing an economic downturn.

Statesman News Service |

India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar recently pointed to the double standards in the priorities of the West when he was sought to be pinned down on New Delhi’s position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict by an interlocutor at a public platform. He said the problem was that the West sees its problems as the world’s problems but doesn’t seem to see the world’s (including India’s) problems as its problems. These words can be applied to the latest issue on the West’s agenda ~ access to air-conditioning. For those of a certain vintage in the non-temperate Global South who have grown in extreme heat without an air-conditioner, a luxury meant for a handful of elites, this may seem another example of the whining of those who caused the current climate crisis by centuries of rapacious exploitation of natural resources and conspicuous consumption. But they would be wrong.

As cities across the West gasp in the extreme heat of a record-breaking summer, governments in Europe and America are waking up to the need to protect human and physical infrastructure from the dangers of extreme heat. Hopefully, the realisation that extreme heat kills ~ and that the elderly, very young children, and those with chronic diseases are at the greatest risk ~ will be extended to cover the millions in countries like India who routinely battle temperatures above 40 degrees centigrade in the summer. Perhaps the fall in productivity and shutdown of infrastructure including educational institutions, transit/transport systems and power grids too will not be blamed solely on so-called Third World administrative incompetence. The push to ensure access to an air-conditioned environment for all, at least in the West, has been encapsulated in a recently published paper by Rebecca Mann and Jenny Schuetz.

Urban areas in the USA, they argue, are particularly affected, as large residential and commercial buildings, roads, pavements, and other impervious surfaces create heat islands that absorb and retain heat during the hottest times of the day and reduce cooling overnight. The authors underline the fact that realistic scenarios project the planet will get five to six degrees warmer by the end of the century. Under these projections, they say, more than 20,000 lives could be lost in major American cities in a heatwave. But thanks to air-conditioning ~ about 70 per cent of homes have central airconditioning ~ the USA is much better equipped to keep people safe during periods of extreme heat compared to a century ago.

Mann and Schuetz assert that increasing access to and investing heavily in air-conditioning is the solution to saving lives and preventing an economic downturn. On this, there can be no argument, other than to say it ought to apply to everyone whether in the American Midwest or Sub-Saharan Africa. Simultaneously, there’s consensus among policymakers that the West must continue to pressure developing countries to reduce their carbon footprint. The problem here is that to ensure access to, say, universal air-conditioning, emerging economies will require massive resources.