Jacobin recently published an article calling for a national and worldwide expansion of air-conditioning usage. In it the writer, Leigh Phillips, used the suffering of economically and ecologically stressed people and communities during heat waves as a rationale for doubling down on a technology that, at the same time it’s cooling the indoors today, is heating up the outdoors of tomorrow. So to assuage such climate concerns, he went on to call for a far-reaching expansion of nuclear power. I suggest that we go back and try to follow this trail of illogic.
Vulnerability can’t be fixed with technology
In the piece, Phillips acknowledges the long-observed fact that people die during heat waves primarily because they live alone and/or suffer from a chronic physical or mental illness and/or are poor and/or are very old or very young. Heat victims also tend to live in inadequate housing in economically forgotten, concrete-rich, vegetation-free neighborhoods of urban heat islands.
Given that, and given that heat waves are going to become even more frequent and intense, the need for universal free health care, economic democracy and guaranteed basic income, good affordable housing, high-quality care for children and the elderly, greening of cities, and greater social cohesion will become more and more urgent.
Further declaring, as Phillips suggests, a “right to air-conditioning” would also contribute to life and health preservation during heat waves, but it would not address the root causes and consequences of poverty and exclusion that lead to deaths every day—not just when it’s hot outside.
Consider the horrific 1995 heat emergency in Chicago that killed more than 550 people despite the wide availability of air-conditioning. Longer, more intense heat waves had struck the city in 1931 and 1936, but the number of deaths per 100,000 population was higher in 1995 than it was during those two heat waves of the pre-AC era.
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