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Won’t Buying an Air Conditioner Just Hasten Global Warming?

Over the course of a year, air conditioning accounts for just 6% of home electricity use.

I feel like I’ve made a deal with the devil by giving in and buying an air conditioner. Won’t using it just hasten global warming and bring forth hell on earth more quickly? —Becky C.

You’re a human being, Becky. Short of killing yourself (or, I suppose, somebody else), everything you do is going to hasten global warming and bring forth hell on earth more quickly. And in spite of all the hand-wringing over what a wasteful and frivolous luxury it supposedly is, air conditioning is a relatively small part of that equation.

“Small, my eye!” cries the straw man. (For some reason, my straw men always talk like Jimmy Stewart.) “That darned window unit goosed my electric bill by 20%!”

That may be true—for a few months. Over the course of a year, however, air conditioning accounts for just 6% of home electricity use. We use more than twice that on hot water and nearly as much (5%) on laundry—yet nobody ever gets judgy about the wasteful frivolity of clean clothes and hot showers.

“That’s all fine and dandy,” you drawl, “but a little honest sweat never hurt a fella, and a 6% dent in climate change is nothing to sneeze at!”

Not so fast, George. Putting aside the suddenly wide-open question of whether hot weather can still be considered merely a harmless inconvenience, that was 6% of electricity consumption. But electric power generation itself accounts for only 25% of our greenhouse gas production (most of the rest comes from burning fossil fuels directly).

Thus, your (and, more importantly, my) new, lifesaving air conditioner actually accounts for only about 1.5% of total U.S. greenhouse gas output. Compare this Tinker Bell-like footprint to that of tourism (8%), meat and dairy (14%), and, of course, private automobiles (29%).

Finally, recall that, unlike the gas in your car and the jet fuel in your plane, the electricity to run your air conditioner can come from renewable sources, as indeed fully 62% of Oregon’s does.

Given all that, I don’t think you have all that much to feel guilty about. Still, if you’re really set on making it up to the planet, there’s always murder.

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.