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The Chilling Impact Of Air conditioning Image Credit: Time
The Chilling Impact Of Air conditioning Image Credit: Time

The Chilling Impact Of Air-conditioning

Extreme heat recently melted roads in the U.K.; hit a record-shattering 120°F in Chino, Calif.; and led to more than 70 deaths in Quebec. These cases illustrate a vexing paradox for scientists and policymakers: air conditioning keeps people cool and saves lives but is also one of the biggest contributors to global warming.

Justin Worland

Two new reports underscore the scale of the challenge. On July 16, Sustainable Energy for All, an NGO that is dedicated to clean energy and is affiliated with the U.N. and World Bank, said that 1.1 billion people across the globe lack access to adequate cooling. And a May analysis from the International Energy Agency (IEA), an intergovernmental organization, shows that just 8% of the 2.8 billion people living in the world’s hottest regions own an air conditioner, compared with more than 90% in places like the U.S. and Japan.

For those billions, gaining access to air-conditioning isn’t just a luxury. Without cooling, heat exhaustion can disrupt the body’s functioning and lead to extreme ailments like organ failure and, eventually, death. The number of people who die of heat-related illness could grow to more than 250,000 by 2050, according to a World Health Organization report. Everyone else will become less productive as they toil under the sun, with some parts of Asia and Africa facing up to a 12% decline in work hours by 2050 as a result of heat stress, according to the Sustainable Energy for All report. More broadly, a lack of cooling often also means that people cannot ensure food safety or store medicine.

ON THE SURFACE, addressing the issue appears simple: countries need to expand access to air-conditioning and provide public cooling locations for people who cannot afford their own devices. This is under w


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