The U.S. National Weather Service is predicting higher-than-normal temperatures this summer up and down the East Coast, through the Southeast, and across the entire West. Sales of air-conditioning equipment have now rebounded from the housing crash as well as from the unusually cool summer that much of the country enjoyed in 2009. And the global market for indoor climate control is expected to grow strongly in coming years thanks to stimulus provided by a warming outdoor climate.
But we are paying a high price for cooled air. The portion of output from the nation's electric utilities that goes to power air-conditioning has grown steadily in recent years. The resulting emissions will contribute to more intense summer heat, which is expected to make the outdoor climate harsher in coming decades. More hot weather would create even greater demand for air-conditioning, resulting in the combustion of even more fossil fuels and further rounds of warming.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program and the Environmental Protection Agency expect the death rate from summer heat waves to rise steeply between now and 2050. Accordingly, air-conditioning is being viewed less and less as an amenity and more as a life-support system. But even though air-conditioning has helped reduce death rates during heat waves over the past half-century, it has not eliminated them. Heat remains the nation's leading cause of weather-related mortality.
Many who die from heat stress don't have air-conditioning or cannot afford to run it, but that's only part of the story. Just as important are the generally harsh conditions under which heat-wave victims often live. They typically suffer and die in economically forgotten, concrete-rich, vegetation-free stretches of large, mostly northern cities. The nature of the surrounding community can be a matter of life and death in a heat wave. A study by the Midwestern Climate Center found that "features of neighborhoods on a relatively small geographic scale (e.g., amount of pedestrian traffic, small shops, public meeting places) affect survival rates [positively]." The researchers also suggested that in such areas, fear of crime makes already vulnerable people, especially older people, reluctant to leave doors and windows open or go outdoors in the cooler evening hours.