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Peter R. Orszag

Refrigerator Pact Shows Climate Partisanship Can Thaw

In 2020, Democrats and Republicans agreed to phase out a group of atmosphere-heating chemicals with remarkably little fuss. What can the HFC saga teach us?

Keeping things cold is an enduring physics challenge.

Keeping things cold is an enduring physics challenge.

Photographer: Della Rollins/Bloomberg

The infrastructure legislation that the Senate is about to pass is said to demonstrate a new bipartisanship in confronting climate change. But this is not the first such instance. A little-noticed provision of a law passed last year demonstrated the same two-party understanding. It involves the very exciting topic of refrigerants.

You may remember from high school physics that refrigerators require special coolants with a low boiling point — lower than the desired temperature of the refrigerated area. The refrigeration cycle begins as liquid coolant is pumped through the refrigerator. As it evaporates, it absorbs heat and cools the chamber (just as the evaporation of sweat from your brow absorbs heat and cools your face). Then the coolant, in gas form, is pumped to the back of the refrigerator where it is compressed. Under high pressure, it condenses back into a liquid and dumps heat. The liquid then passes through a nozzle to reduce its pressure and cool it further, and the cycle begins anew.