Cruelest Summer: What is the cost of comfort?

Andru Okun in The Baffler:

Concerns were raised about the 2020 hurricane season even before it officially began, as above-average air and water temperatures in the Gulf signaled an elevated chance of supercharged storms. When Hurricane Laura struck the southwest coast of Louisiana late last August, it carried with it 150 mile-per-hour winds and a storm surge of roughly ten feet. It was the strongest hurricane to hit Louisiana since 1856, causing around $17.5 billion in damages and killing thirty-three. Six weeks later, the same area was hit by yet another powerful hurricane that dumped fifteen inches of rain onto the storm-ravaged city of Lake Charles. Recently, climate researchers looked at over ninety peer-reviewed scientific articles on tropical cyclones and concluded that anthropogenic global warming was—to no one’s surprise—making storms more powerful. Meanwhile, Louisiana continues to heat up, with cities throughout the state experiencing up to an extra month of extreme heat when compared to fifty years ago.

As I began writing this, the New Orleans area was under an excessive heat warning, with a possibility of “feels like” temperatures nearing 110 degrees. I posted up in front of an air-conditioner—a window unit, set to 82 degrees. I’d describe it as “comfortable,” but what does that even mean? Much of Eric Dean Wilson’s new far-reaching study of air-conditioning—After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and The Terrible Cost of Comfort—deals directly with this question. While it may not be a surprise to learn that Euro-American standards of comfort have been largely dictated by rich and sweaty white men, how exactly this standard was set makes for a fascinating narrative of technological innovation and environmental destruction.

…While air-conditioning became normalized in industry and education by the 1920s, Wilson notes that “the idea of air-conditioning for public and private comfort remained absurd”—even for the wealthy. Early model air-conditioners tended to be clumsy and dangerous, using toxic natural refrigerants like ammonia that could corrode copper piping and leak, thereby infusing a space with the smell of urine and potentially killing anyone who remained inside. For comfort cooling to achieve mainstream acceptance, safer, more efficient systems needed to be created.

Enter chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the synthetic refrigerant better known as Freon—which facilitated the widespread adoption of mechanical cooling and massively fucked up the planet in the process.

More here.