Let's not confuse 'the right to be cool' with the right to a consumer good. We don't need a techno-fix to solve our problems, there are plenty of cool alternatives, involving rethinking urban design and how we use public space.
Another hot summer. From Shanghai to Karachi, we saw images of people sleeping on the street, trying to avoid the stifling heat inside their apartments. There, buying an air conditioner is a luxury that most people can’t afford. In London, homeless people were banned from using fountains in several parks.
Cities that are already hot - built with concrete, cast in smog, congested - are now experiencing a double toll. The heat island effect means that cities may be 2-3°C hotter than the surrounding countryside during the day, and up to 12°C warmer in the evening.
This will only get worse. When combined with poverty, unaffordable housing, and lack of access to water, heat waves affect the poor, elderly, and disabled first. Climate change is like a match on dry tinder: all the problems that already existed are exacerbated.
As the effects of climate change start to become more obvious year after year, we are faced with a conundrum. Today, progressives need to address both climate change and its effects, like heat waves and flooding.
In previous articles, we've talked about the benefits and perils of organising locally. We've argued that fighting for more democratic control where we live is necessary to fight the big things, like climate change.
In this installment of our column, we ask, what would a movement that advocates for 'the right to be cool' look like? Some have suggested that we simply offer everyone air conditioners—like the TVs and cars promised to the working class in the 1950s.
But let's not confuse 'the right to be cool' with the right to a consumer good. We don't need a techno-fix to solve our problems. There are plenty of cool alternatives, involving rethinking urban design and how we use public space.
What we need is a political movement that links people's needs to their capacity to have more control over their lives. When people fight for greener, cooler towns and cities, they also help to build the capacity for more democracy where they live.
21st century television
An air conditioner seems the simplest way to lower indoor temperature. Cheap, easy to install, the standard AC unit is like the 21st century television: everyone should have one.
This presumption was made a policy reality this May, when New York State’s governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, announced a $3 million fund that would provide air conditioners to those suffering from health effects of extreme heat. People are at risk of death from heat waves, so why not include air conditioners as part of a wider health care platform?
There are some issues, however. First, air conditioners consume a lot of energy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, air conditioners accounted for six percent of total household electricity use in the United States, and roughly 117 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Especially in countries like India and China, where coal is still king, increased AC use would lead to even higher use of carbon dioxide. According to the International Energy Agency, if the current rate of AC sales are to continue, then total global greenhouse gas emissions would double by 2050.
Besides, it’s not just their massive electricity use that’s the problem. For one thing, all air conditioners in use today rely on refrigerants that damage the ozone layer or emit greenhouse gasses. What’s more, air conditioners are heat pumps: they create more heat than they cool.
So they need a heat sink—somewhere to store all that extra thermal energy. For most AC units, the heat sink is the air around a building. This once again contributes to the urban heat island effect. In dense cities, many AC units on at once cause a drastic increase in outside air temperature.
For example, a 2007 study found that the waste heat from air conditioners causes an outdoor temperature rise of 1°–2°C or more on weekdays in Tokyo’s office areas. So, in order to pump more thermal energy out of the system, the heat pump is forced to use more and more energy.
Another problem with air conditioners is that for each degree you lower the temperature, it takes more and more energy. For example, if it takes one air conditioning unit 100 W to lower a room’s temperature by 1°C for an hour, it might take 400 W to lower it by 2°C for an hour. It’s not linear. Any engineer will quickly tell you that if you’re able to reduce the temperature even a little bit, you’ll save exponentially more energy.
Though it seems like a simple solution, providing everyone with an air conditioner would lead to a lot of problems. Some hope, however, that this problem could be circumvented by building a 100% clean energy grid. A recent article in Jacobin even proposed that 'AC for everyone' could be made clean and friendly when powered by a massive system of nuclear and hydro power plants.
To understand why this kind of techno-fix is undesirable, we have to realise that there are cooling options beyond AC. As we explain below, demanding the right to be cool is very different from demanding everyone receive a specific technology like AC, when there are so many alternatives available.
Tools in the coolbox
There is a movement within urban planning and architecture to curb the global reliance on air conditioning. For most architects and engineers critical of AC, the problem is that it is often used in counterintuitive, dysfunctional ways.
An over-reliance on AC has led to buildings that are poorly designed, poorly ventilated (leading to respiratory problems), and with small windows that don’t open and close. Buildings designed to stay cool, by contrast don’t need much energy-intensive cooling at all.
No one is rejecting AC outright, but calling for it to be more appropriately applied. It is possible to appreciate the need for AC in certain contexts, while at the same time work to minimize its use by implementing alternatives. It should only be one of the tools in the coolbox.
There are many better tools, some of which would be pretty quick to implement, others which might take more time and planning. In the short term, planting trees in public spaces can reduce temperature by an average of 1°C in a 1-kilometer radius; adding a fountain can reduce it even more.
A 2007 study showed that adding 10 percent green cover globally could reduce surface temperatures by up to 2.5°C by 2080. Growing plants and trees on building facades and rooftops can also do a lot to reduce indoor temperature.
Ripping up concrete sidewalks and parking lots and instead planting urban forests and using less cars can all help to decrease indoor and outdoor air temperature. In cities with an abundance of water, “soft cooling” techniques using fans and pools can also greatly reduce extreme temperatures.
Many architects today are also changing how they design buildings: only providing AC in specific rooms instead of through a central heating system. This way, people can choose to open or close their windows if they want, while reducing the energy needed to cool the hallways and lobby areas.
If you face photovoltaic panels westward, you can time the peak electricity production from solar energy with peak electricity demand for cooling. Using better glass on buildings, external shading, increasing air movement and installing ceiling fans—all of these further reduce reliance on AC.
In the longer term, we can cool our streets by narrowing them, using less dark colors that absorb heat, and aligning streets to prevailing winds. There are also ways we can overhaul the way we do air conditioning itself.
Many cities already provide air-conditioned public spaces as a public health services; we could also redesign apartment buildings with social spaces for people to hang out, by, for example, transforming the much cooler basements into lounges.
We could build cooperative housing that is ecologically and efficiently designed, so that people can together manage their energy use and decide on their own innovations to lower temperature. Toronto has a district cooling system that uses cold water from the bottom of Lake Ontario, and then uses the warmed up water for the drinking water supply.
In fact, the possibilities are endless and, from a designers’ perspective, thrilling. Taken together, each of these interventions could reduce indoor and outdoor temperature by one degree here, another degree there.
As already noted, each degree hotter takes more and more energy for an air conditioner to bring the temperature down to a tolerable level. By reducing the temperature little by little, we take the strain off of air conditioners and can, in many cases, limit our reliance on them—battling heat waves and climate change at the same time.
Note, however, that these alternatives require a totally different approach to urban planning than the one that prevails today. First, they imply what could be called an ecological approach—that is, considering all the diverse factors at play, such as local climate, conditions, social norms, and built environment. It involves using a wide variety of tools that, when taken together, can significantly reduce both total energy use and air temperature.
Second, it also demands long-term cooperation between people, experts, and governmental bodies—and significant pressure on elected representatives to combat established interests of the construction, transportation, and real estate sectors.
These sectors will always try to privatize profits from construction, cutting as many corners as possible, and socialize costs, leading to cities that are massively overheated and giving us no option but to spend money on air conditioners.
Notice also that many of these alternatives make life a lot nicer for people anyway. They increase interactions between people, are relatively cheap, and offer a greener urban environment. In the end, they will reduce costs for everyone: when we make our cities cooler, we will no longer be forced to spend our own money on air conditioners and the energy bills they run up. But how do we get there?
Cool people’s movements
This is where political organizing comes in. If we acknowledge that being cool is a fundamental right in the 21st century, it opens up infinite opportunities for collective action.
Imagine: in every neighborhood, we open community-run swimming pools, where people of all ages can come and hang out. We run cool cafeterias and clubs, giving people a space to gather during a hot day.
We demand that our libraries are hooked up to solar panels, so that air conditioning energy demand is low-impact. We start community gardens where people can cool down in the evening and learn to manage land together.
In the long term, we can scale up our demands. We get the city to tear up parking lots to replace them with parks and fountains. We democratise our workspaces, and pressure our employers to refurbish offices to be cooler and more energy efficient.
We campaign to make public transportation free, so that anyone can ride it and chill out. We build our own cooperative housing, designed to be cool. We rebuild train lines and inter-city public transport systems, minimizing the amount of concrete highways criss-crossing the landscape, further reducing global warming.
We municipalise energy and water systems, taking the profit motive out of what should be a human right, and helping cities to design more ecological infrastructure.
Development without displacement
This would fit in with existing movements. Take, for example, the campaign for “development without displacement” in the United States. Organisers advocate a new integrated housing and development platform that makes cities more accessible while meeting people’s needs. We can combine this with demands for greener, cooler cities.
We’ll need to be careful: there is increased concern that “green" development can be a catalyst for gentrification. But this doesn’t have to be the case. When combined with initiatives that encourage direct democracy like community land trusts, residential cooperatives, community-run public parks, neighborhood assemblies, and participatory budgeting, such visionary greening and development initiatives can simultaneously help to make neighborhoods more resilient to gentrification, heat waves, and climate change.
The short of it is that the right to be cool fits perfectly within existing campaigns for radical democracy where people live. To demand cool cities is to demand the right to the city itself.
It also opens up opportunities for people to get involved in community organizing, and to make collectivizing daily life more appealing to people. It’s well known that initiatives like community gardens, work-place cooperatives, and tenant unions help people to practice democracy where they live and work.
By campaigning for cooler cities, activists can combine climate justice, anti-austerity organizing, anti-racism and migrant justice, housing justice, and radical democracy.
Fighting for cooler cities while battling climate change may seem like a contradiction, but it’s precisely through taking advantage of these contradictions that we can start building collective power, by demanding material well being for all. One bonus: this isn’t just the domain of urban planners, technocrats, or politicians. Everyone can get involved.
But what if—just bear with me—we switched to a 100% clean energy system, solving the problem that AC has high carbon footprint, without all the fuss of building neighborhood democracy?
An easy way to do this would be to scale up nuclear and hydro energy globally. This way, says Leigh Phillips in Jacobin, we could have as many air conditioners as we would ever want. Let's look a bit at his proposal and consider its implications. We share with him some common ground: that everyone has the right to be cool. But then he equates the right to be cool with the right for everyone to have air conditioners. “New buildings,” he says, “must come with A/C as part of any ‘Green New Deal.’”
Against AC, he pits “ascetics”—pro-austerity environmentalists who just want the poor to stay poor. Citing Greenpeace and the Pope, he makes it seem everyone who speaks up against AC are guilty of consumption-shaming, judging the poor for wanting to make life just a little bit better. “Nothing is too good for the working class,” he says.
Phillips mischaracterizes the debate, making it seem like there’s misanthropic Luddites on one side, and scientific human-lovers on the other. But this is far from reality. As already noted, alternatives to air conditioning are widely recognized within architecture and urban planning fields. Unfortunately, Phillips doesn't mention this in the article.
Phillips concedes that AC is a significant contributor to greenhouse emissions. But there is not a word about AC’s other impacts, such as its contribution to the urban heat island effect—also a driver of climate change. Even if air conditioners were powered by clean energy, they would still make our cities hotter.
A plot device
Ignoring common knowledge in urban planning and architecture, he moves on to propose his grand project: scaling up hydro and nuclear power to provide massive amounts of clean energy globally. Though by now it should be clear that it’s possible to cool cities without a significant increase in energy use, he barrels over any alternatives and argues that the only thing that would make guaranteeing the right to be cool possible would be a massive, centrally controlled fleet of nuclear power plants.
Strangely, however—especially strange considering the article was published in a socialist magazine—there is no politics here. Historically, the struggle for socialism has been rooted in people’s material lived realities—that is, their collective response to the problems they face every day due to the systemic alienation of capitalism. As already noted, a movement for cool cities and towns would be based around people’s own ability to address heat waves together—through daily struggle, where they live and work.
In contrast, to achieve his dream, Phillips can only imagine a world-straddling behemoth of a centralized energy system, which would have to be designed by an army of technocrats and engineers and protected by, well, large standing armies.
Most countries in hot and tropical areas do not have the capacity to build a nuclear fleet and are still dominated by peasant and Indigenous land-use—meaning that large hydro dams would meet significant resistance. Uranium extraction and nuclear waste disposal has led to environmental justice conflicts the world over, and there are currently no large long-term nuclear waste storage plans.
Not only is there little capacity to scale up nuclear and hydro in the present conditions, any attempt to do so would be violent. Considering all this, the proposal feels conspicuously like what Rut Elliot Blomqvist calls a “magical lever”—a plot device with little basis in current material conditions.
We could call this kind of thinking technologism—technology bereft of politics, letting devices do the political work for you. There is little appreciation for complexity, nor is there any ecological thought.
The agents implementing this proposal would be experts, not the working class. By confusing a device (air conditioners) with a human right (the right to be cool), the article presents us a limited vision, one that cannot see alternatives to presently existing technologies, and can only offer scaling them up. In doing so, this master plan shuts down political options, rather than revealing more.
The right to be cool
As the toll of climate change rises, as the summers become hotter, we have the opportunity to link struggles for cooler cities with other progressive demands. As organizers, we are well placed to improve literacy about ecological issues, while connecting these with people’s struggle to meet day-to-day needs.
Fighting for greener, cooler towns and cities is perfectly in line with other struggles for well being—and, as a bonus, they help to break down alienation between people. Only a political program that is linked to people’s daily lives will have the power to show an alternative, to kindle a desire for a different way of doing things.
Air-conditioning for all isn't good enough for the working class; what we need is a movement that offers people what they need and brings them together, showing how collective power can change day-to-day conditions.
This article was written by Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi). He thanks Kai Bosworth and Adrian Turcato for the conversations that led to this article. The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organizers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organisations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev.