Yesterday, it was 105 degrees in Dallas, and I was outside doing errands. The heat burned the skin and pressed on the chest, and going into an air conditioned store, whatever it sells, was a relief. Some stores even left their doors open, so cool air drifted out onto the hot Dallas sidewalks, an invitation for customers to come in and shop. But let’s ignore for the moment the greenhouse gases we create in powering the cool air machines and look instead at chemicals used in the air conditioners.
contain gases called coolants
which make them work, and coolants are regulated by international treaties which were born when the ozone-depleting effects of old-style CFC coolants
became clear. High-altitude ozone blocks cancer-causing ultraviolet sun rays, and the world political community acted decades ago to phase out CFCs once their bad effects were documented by scientists. The CFC replacements, other gases known as HCFCs and HFCs
, are much less damaging to Earth’s ozone layer of protection, but pound for pound they trap heat and warm the Earth
thousands of times more efficiently that the carbon dioxide Al Gore and others worry about. Your new air conditioner is tagged as “environmentally friendly”, because its gases don’t deplete Earth’s ozone layer, but those coolant gases, once they escape into the air, help fuel runaway climate change.
Once again, there appears to be no easy way to continue expanding levels of consumption without jeopardizing the planet’s climate. Air conditioning use is exploding in China, India and other countries, and for now there are no commercially-available coolants that neither harm the ozone layer nor heat our climate. I bet that being outside in 105 degree heat feels as bad in Mumbai, India, as it does in Dallas, and it doesn’t seem right to tell people in developing countries that they shouldn’t aspire to the levels of comfort Americans enjoy. For now, let’s cheer on the scientists to create less toxic air conditioners and soon.