Life without air conditioning.

Photographer: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Americans' Air Conditioning Habit Is Eco-Friendly

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Any American who has spent much time around visiting Europeans has probably had some version of this conversation: "Why do you use so much air conditioning?" they ask. "Your buildings are ridiculously cold. I have to wear a sweater inside in the summer! And it's bad for the environment. You shouldn't do that."

Well, if you haven't had the pleasure, the Washington Post has brought that argument home. "The weather in Washington, D.C., and Berlin, Germany, has been pretty similar recently," a correspondent in Europe writes. "There is one striking difference between the two capitals, though: Whereas many Americans would probably never consider living or working in buildings without air conditioning, many Germans think that life without climate control is far superior."

Oh, yes, I know. I've worked with Germans. And Brits. And Swedes. And Dutch people. And French people. All of whom professed themselves absolutely baffled by our insistence on wasting so much energy cooling our offices and homes, when we could just build buildings that cool themselves naturally if we open the windows occasionally. 

For Europeans reading this, I may actually be able to clear up this baffling issue: Americans use air conditioning more because America is a lot hotter than Europe is. For example, in Washington, where the weather is apparently "pretty similar" to Berlin, it is expected to be 87 degrees Fahrenheit (31 Celsius) tomorrow. In Berlin, Weather.com informs me that temperatures are expected to be a torrid, sultry ... 75 Fahrenheit (23 Celsius).

Of course, on any two random days, the weather might be unseasonably cold or unseasonably hot. You really need to look at monthly averages. And lo and behold, when we look, we discover that Washington has an average temperature of 88 degrees in July, while Berlin has an average temperature of ... 73 (yes, that is indeed 31 and 23 Celsius).

And we're not talking about a place that's really hot, like Dallas (average July temperature is 96, or 36 Celsius) or Phoenix (106, or 41 Celsius). We're just talking about a rather ordinary American city in roughly the middle of the country's north-to-south span.

We do have some cities with more European temperatures, including San Francisco and Seattle, but they are not our largest population centers. The rest of the country, even places that are frozen wastelands in the winter, experiences summertime average highs above 80 degrees. That's not a rogue heat wave, the kind that Northern Europeans complain about endlessly while futilely fiddling with their fans. That's just what we Americans call "summer." A heat wave is when it's 100 degrees (38 Celsius) and your dog won't go outside because the pavement burns his feet.

A chart may help to illustrate what I'm saying:

I've lived through heat waves in Northern Europe, which cause much the same hysteria that we see in Washington when two inches of snow is forecast. Because we have air conditioning, Americans do not have to panic when the mercury rises. Nor do we have incredible fatalities among the old and vulnerable when they happen.

In the south of Europe, they do have higher temperatures, of course -- though of the biggest cities in each European nation, only Athens and Madrid are consistently as warm as medium-hot American cities like Atlanta and Washington. These warmest European locales are, I must note, places where the city sort of empties out during the summer, and anyone who stays is eager to install air conditioning.

You could argue that if Americans had not migrated en masse from the temperate north to the blistering sunbelt, we would need less energy for climate control. You could argue that, but you'd be wrong. Americans still expend much more energy heating their homes than cooling them. That's actually not that surprising. The difference between the average temperature outside and the temperature that is comfortable inside is generally only 10 to 20 degrees in most of America, for most of the summer. On the other hand, in January, the residents of Rochester, New York -- the cold, snowy, rapidly depopulating area that my mother hails from -- you need to get the temperature up from an average low of 18 degrees (-8 Celsius) to at least 60 or 65. That takes a lot of energy.

On average, the move from cold areas to warm ones has actually saved energy, not caused us to use more. So why are we so down on air conditioning, while accepting flagrant heat use as normal? In part, it's because air conditioning still seems optional. Unlike a cold winter with no heat, a hot summer with no cooling won't definitely kill you.

Heating also seems normal because it is normal, if not exactly natural. Once we harnessed fire, humans started moving into temperate areas that were previously uninhabitable by hairless bipeds evolved for the equatorial plains of Africa. By now, warming ourselves in the winter seems like "something that everyone has to do"; we don't see it as "a great deal of energy expended to live in an area that's not really all that suitable for human habitation."

I'd like to thank our European brothers and sisters for starting this important conversation. We should all pay more attention to profligate climate control. Why are people clinging to their unsustainable lifestyles and expending so much energy to make their homes comfortable year-round? Why don't they do the right thing for the environment? Embrace air conditioning, and get the heck out of Berlin.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net