Episode 83: The Not-So-Cool Effects of Air Conditioning on Climate Change
In this month’s episode of Citizens’ Climate Radio, Eric Dean Wilson fills us in on the not-so-cool history of air conditioning and its complicated relationship to climate change. He is the author of After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort. Lila Powell and Ruth Abraham join Peterson Toscano in hosting this deep dive into air conditioning’s past, present, and future.
Eric walks us through the creation and history of AC. Despite what all of us at CCR thought, AC was not first used for human comfort or health. Eric says, it was about money. From movie theaters to segregation to a mad scientist, the history of AC covers it all. Join us to learn about how AC got its start in the world of finance and how racism keeps exposing some people in American cities to more heat than others.
Air conditioning contributes directly to the warming of the planet, and its impact is nothing if not ironic. AC typically runs on electricity that’s generated by fossil fuels and the more AC units run, the more greenhouse gas emissions increase! Despite these climate effects, the US tends to hold AC up as the only option for staying cool, which Eric Dean Wilson refers to as the “cost of comfort.”
Eric says, “The United States is in the habit of criticizing those nations who were asking for the same comforts that we have, even though we’re not doing hardly anything”
So, what can we do? Eric helps us see a future that does not rely on air conditioning for our comfort. Much like Sean Dague did in Episode 80: Unleashing Our Imaginations for Climate Change Solutions! Tune in and you will hear Peterson and Ruth’s suggestions for some Meaningful Next Steps.
“One of the things I call for in the book is rather than focusing on individual comfort and individual survival, to really try to rethink our notion of comfort, and think about collective comfort and collective survival, community survival.” – Eric Dean Wilson
Eric Dean Wilson’s essays, poems, and criticism have appeared in Time, Esquire, the Baffler, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Tin House, among other publications. A graduate of The New School’s MFA program in creative writing, Wilson has just defended his doctoral dissertation in the English program at The Graduate Center, CUNY, which focuses on the tension between the personal and the planetal in ecological essays. In the fall, he’ll join the faculty at Wagner College on Staten Island as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and American Literature. Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, he now lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Take a Meaningful Next Step
Each month we will suggest meaningful, achievable, and measurable next steps for you to consider. We recognize that action is an antidote to despair. If you are struggling with what you can do, consider one of the following next steps.
Ruth Abraham’s suggestion:
Shade helps cool the air without having to use air conditioning. Manifest the power of shade by making your space green! You can get houseplants that release extra moisture into your rooms. Some species include spider plants, jade, Boston ferns, and peace lilies. The plants help clean the air as well as cool things down. To take things a step further: If you have a yard or green space on the sidewalk, see about planting a tree that provides cooling shade, you may need to connect with your municipality, if that green space is part of a sidewalk. Get your neighborhood involved if need be. It’s these collective small steps that bring us closer to climate solutions!
Peterson Toscano’s suggestion:
Consider a large building where you spend lots of time. It might be your school or where you work, shop or workout. In the summer these spaces can have the air conditioning pumping so high it feels good when you come in from the heat, but after 20 minutes, people start freezing. This uses a lot of unnecessary energy. How about you begin a campaign to have the building operators increase the temperature by one or two degrees? In other words, lower the intensity of the air conditioning. Do a little research about who makes these decisions. Find out who else shares your concern, maybe even figure out a cost analysis of how the building operators will save money by decreasing the amount of AC in the summer. Then use your volunteer lobbying skills to advocate for this change.
Dig Deeper – suggestions from Eric Dean Wilson
- The work of U.S. environmental historian William Cronon, particularly his 1995 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness”
- Alex Johnson‘s “How to Queer Ecology: One Goose at a Time“
- The work of eco-feminist philosopher Val Plumwood, who was once nearly killed by a crocodile. I would recommend her book Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason.
- Americans in particular are obsessed with work, and academic Cara New Daggett has been critiquing this contemporary liberal economic and political framework through a deep historical and cultural dive of energy in The Birth of Energy. I find the conclusion one of the most inspiring texts I’ve read recently.
- Marxist geographer Matthew T. Huber‘s new book Climate Change as Class War as well as his earlier book Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital help to ground an activist agenda in material terms.
- The work of Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is absolutely essential, particularly his argument that we need a climate reparations. He’s also an excellent follow on Twitter.
- Also: Check out these houseplants to combat dry air in your home
- Interested in a self-sustainable home? Check out Earthships!
- Learn more about how you can promote healthy forest for a healthy climate.
In this episode, we premiere a new section in our podcast — the Nerd Corner! Citizens’ Climate’s Research Coordinator, Dana Nuccitelli, fills us in on the environmental impacts of renewable energy. Dana highlights climate research (and makes it understandable) for fellow nerds and the nerd curious! Check out Dana’s recent post about The little-known physical and mental health benefits of urban trees.
CCR’s very own intern, Ruth Abraham, shares her experience attending the CCL Southeast Regional Conference. The conference took place at the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design on Georgia Tech’s campus. It was the 28th building to receive a Living Building Certification. She heard from various climate continuous figures such as Georgia Senator, Raphael Warnock, and Atlanta’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Candra Farley. Ruth even joined a book club!
If you couldn’t make it to CCL’s Southeast Regional Conference, don’t worry! The Citizens’ Climate International Conference and Lobby Day will be held June 10-13 in Washington, DC.
We want to hear your feedback about this episode. After you listen, feel free to fill in this short survey. Your feedback will help us as we make new decisions about the content, guests, and style of the show. You can fill it out anonymously and answer whichever questions you like.
You can hear Citizens’ Climate Radio on:
Also, feel free to connect with other listeners, suggest program ideas, and respond to programs in the Citizens’ Climate Radio Facebook group or on Twitter at @CitizensCRadio.
Read the Transcript
Episode 83: The Not-So-Cool Effects of Air Conditioning on Climate Change
Lila Powell, Peterson Toscano, Ruth Abraham, Eric Dean Wilson, Dana Nuccitelli
Lila Powell 00:00
Welcome to Citizens’ Climate Radio, your Climate Change Podcast.
Ruth Abraham 00:03
In this show, we highlight people’s stories. We celebrate successes, and together we share strategies for talking about climate change. I’m Ruth Abraham,
Peterson Toscano 00:11
I am Peterson Toscano,
Lila Powell 00:13
and I’m Lila Powell. Welcome to Episode 83 of Citizens’ Climate Radio, a project of Citizens’ Climate Education.
Peterson Toscano 00:18
This episode is airing on Friday, April 24, 2023. Today, we’re going to take a deep dive into the history of air conditioning.
Lila Powell 00:28
Sounds uh- interesting.
Ruth Abraham 00:31
Right? When the idea was first introduced, I was like, how cool could air conditioning really be?
Peterson Toscano 00:36
It’s actually pretty fascinating, and its origins are more complex than you might imagine.
Ruth Abraham 00:41
Which is why we need three hosts! Peterson you sat down with Eric Dean Wilson. He’s the author of the book After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort.
Peterson Toscano 00:51
Eric lives in New York City, and he has his roots in Memphis, Tennessee. Having lived in Memphis myself, I can attest to how air conditioning gets cranked up about half the year. The coldest summer of my life was in an office building in Memphis, Tennessee.
Eric teaches creative writing to undergraduates. He’s an accomplished writer himself, having published essays, poems and criticism in Time Magazine and Esquire, along with many creative writing journals. His book, After Cooling, is insightful, informative, and often quite humorous. From chatting with Eric and reading his book, I learned that the history of air conditioning is a very American story. What AC can do and its origins surprised me.
Eric Dean Wilson 01:31
I would have assumed that air conditioning was one of those technologies that was inevitable, that we were always looking for, and that once we found it, or once somebody invented it, people would say: “Oh, thank goodness, we’ve been waiting for this.” I was surprised to find in my research that that is not true. Throughout the 19th century and the early 20th century, the history of air conditioning is a history of false starts, of people coming very close to inventing, or in some cases, inventing air conditioning, and then, people rejecting it or feeling very uncomfortable with the idea of thermal comfort.
Really, a modern air conditioner does a few things. It can control the temperature, so both cool it and also, in some cases, heat it to control the temperature. It can purify the air. It can filter out unwanted particles. It can ventilate so it can blow the air in a certain direction mechanically, and maybe most crucially, and most difficult of all is it can humidify or dehumidify. The air once you can control humidity, you can really control the quality of the air. And it’s particularly difficult to wring moisture out of the air.
Lila Powell 02:41
So if comfort wasn’t the point of AC, then what was it for?
Ruth Abraham 02:45
Turns out, the creation of air conditioning, like so many things in the USA, is a familiar story.
Eric Dean Wilson 02:52
The true birth of air conditioning is really about money in two ways. So the first publicly cooled space was not for private home comfort, was not for the sort of the general public or something like that. It was for the stock traders on Wall Street. They had just built a new building on 11 Broad Street. They realized that in the summer, the huge windows and the architecture of it would make the trading floor incredibly hot and stuffy. And they were in the habit of taking a break for the summer. But of course when that happens, they lose a lot of money.
Eric Dean Wilson 03:24
So they contacted an engineer to work on an air cooling system that was successful to successfully cool the traders during the summer so that quite literally capital could flow. I feel like that’s very telling that it wasn’t so much about health as it was about money. And at the same time, the very same time, an engineer named Willis Carrier who might sound familiar to a lot of people, the carrier of Carrier air conditioning was put on the task of dehumidifying. For factories, this was also very successful. The first project was also in New York in Brooklyn actually, for a printing press because the humidity was making the ink for a printing press run. His task was to create a machine, essentially an air conditioner that would dehumidify and cool so that the printing press could save a lot of money.
Eric Dean Wilson 04:11
Throughout the early 1900s that’s really what the main use of air conditioners was for was in factory spaces. And, again, not always too cool, sometimes to heat and to humidify. Like for instance, in tobacco factories, you wanted there to be a very moist, very hot air because otherwise, the tobacco would flake and crack. But if you were, say, manufacturing movie film, or chewing gum, and you’d want it to be very cold or else the gum would melt, the product dictated the ideal air conditions of the workspace. And that’s what air conditioning was used for to increase profit. And this also had another effect which was to discipline workers. If workers were too uncomfortable in a space, that could slow down production. In a sense, there was also a component of air conditioning that was about human comfort but it was human comfort so that they could work more efficiently to again, increase profit.
Lila Powell 05:04
Wow, AC has changed so much since then. And it’s everywhere now.
Peterson Toscano 05:07
Yeah, like that office I worked in in Memphis, we actually found out where the thermostat was on the wall. And we figured out how to hack the system with a Ziploc bag of ice that we taped over the thermostat. The bosses didn’t like that at all.
Ruth Abraham 05:21
I cannot imagine having to do all that to stay warm in the summer. The one place I always remember having to bring a sweater is to the movies. My movie uniform per se always involves a hoodie or a jacket. At minimum, it’s always freezing cold there.
Peterson Toscano 05:36
Turns out movie theaters played a major role in the evolution of air conditioning,
Eric Dean Wilson 05:41
The general public was most likely to be introduced to air conditioning through the movie theater. One of the reasons why it wasn’t in the home yet is because it was still awkward as a technology it was hard to control. Part of what made air conditioning so exciting to sell was it in a very hot summer day, they would crank the air conditioning up so intensely, so that you would feel it immediately like an icebox or like a freezer, right when you walked in, which felt incredibly good for about five minutes. And then after that it would be extremely cold for the rest of the movie.
Eric Dean Wilson 06:12
The air conditioner was really instrumental in democratizing in a way democratizing, at least for white people. As we know, the history of movie theaters in the United States was racially segregated history. Sometimes air conditioning played a huge part in that to where white movie theaters would be air conditioned, whereas black theaters would not be that early experience of American cinema was racially segregated, but also the comfort level was segregated. You might experience a film completely differently if you were white or black in terms of temperature.
Lila Powell 06:40
Okay, wow. So even air conditioning is racist.
Peterson Toscano 06:43
Yeah, and it gets even worse. In a little while, Eric will tell us more about how racial segregation resulted in temperature inequality.
Ruth Abraham 06:51
Let’s take a look at how AC is a climate change issue.
Lila Powell 06:56
AC is essential for people with respiratory diseases and the elderly. It’s literally a lifesaver.
Lila Powell 07:01
But at the same time, air conditioning contributes directly to the warming of the planet. In most places, it runs on electricity that gets generated by fossil fuels. The more AC units run, the more greenhouse gas emissions increase.
Peterson Toscano 07:15
Eric told me about a long history of dangerous substances. He also mentioned a quirky inventor who in trying to fix one problem created a much bigger one.
Eric Dean Wilson 07:25
His name was Thomas Midgley, Jr. And he sort of lived up to the stereotype of a mad scientist. He was trained as a mechanical engineer, but he was put on projects that involve chemistry, so he had no formal training in chemistry. He was charismatic enough that his boss, Charles Kettering, put him on these chemical projects.
Eric Dean Wilson 07:45
The first one was to find a solution to gasoline knock in the early days of automobile gasoline, a problem would happen where the car engines would knock, it would eat up a lot of the gasoline, and it would make the engines really inefficient. And nobody knew how to fix it. Thomas Midgley Jr. actually came up with a solution for this, which ended up being leaded gasoline. But one of the ways he did it was that he just started pouring random chemicals into an engine to see whether they worked or not, which is something that you or I were perfectly qualified to do. He really had no plan. And he probably went through about 100 of them.
Eric Dean Wilson 08:16
So this was kind of the Midgley method where he just threw things around and saw if they stuck. So leaded gasoline was even at the time incredibly scandalous, because everyone knew that it was toxic, including probably mentally, but again, profit was driving the production of this. That kind of culminated in a bunch of reporters showing up at his office and saying, you know, this has lead in it and you’re putting it out into the atmosphere. How do we know that this is safe for us, to show reporters that it was perfectly safe, which it wasn’t, he took a barrel of the leaded gasoline and dumped his hands on it, and then washed his face in it and said, “See, it’s perfectly fine.” Later, he got lead poisoning. An environmental historian, was writing about Thomas Midgley Jr. and said that, “possibly no other organism including cyanobacteria has had a single greatest effect on the planet than Thomas Midgley Jr.”
Lila Powell 09:06
And he was the guy tasked with working on improving air conditioning.
Peterson Toscano 09:09
From a public health standpoint, Thomas Midgley Jr. hoped to make air conditioning safer for people. And from a business standpoint, his innovations led to a booming air conditioning industry.
Eric Dean Wilson 09:20
There are a couple of refrigerants that were used, what are called the natural refrigerants in the early 1900s. Things like carbon dioxide, ammonia was super common sulfur dioxide and methyl chloride, things like that. The problem with all of those except for carbon dioxide is that they were either poisonous or explosive or sometimes both. So if you were in a movie theater in the 1920s, and there was an ammonia leak, it was incredibly noxious and, you know, kind of smells like urine, not a pleasant thing to sit through during a film right and not good for business. Carbon dioxide is totally safe, but the properties of it are tricky to use as refrigerant because it has to be super pressurized, which we can actually do pretty well now, but we couldn’t back then everyone at the time.
Eric Dean Wilson 10:00
In the 20s and 30s, by everyone I mean companies who were making engineering equipment and air conditioners, things like General Electric were looking for a kind of miracle refrigerant. This miracle refrigerant was found by Thomas Midgley Jr. He invented what we now know as Freon, which is a brand name. So it’s a family of chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons CFCs. The amazing thing about CFCs is that they were the perfect refrigerant chemically, they were perfectly suited because they were designed in a lab, for refrigerating for being used in an air conditioner. They were also completely safe on a human level, you could sniff them, they were non toxic, they were very stable. They didn’t interact with other chemicals. They were not explosive to all available evidence, this seemed incredibly safe. The birth of Freon allowed the major expansion of air conditioning. Once Freon was invented, that allowed air conditioning to expand to larger spaces and also more spaces for cheaper.
Lila Powell 10:59
So we’ve Thomas Midgley, Jr. to thank for making AC go viral.
Peterson Toscano 11:03
Yeah, and this expansion turned out to be terrible for the planet and those of us living on it.
Eric Dean Wilson 11:12
They weren’t nearly as safe as we thought in the early 1970s, two atmospheric chemists named Mario Molina and Sherry Rowland, sort of by accident, figured out that CFCs had the potential to waft into the stratosphere, which is an upper level of the atmosphere where planes fly, where the ozone layer is a very thin layer of ozone molecules. And it is what one writer in the 1930s calls the only thing between us and speedy death, it is what protects us from the sun’s most violent ultraviolet radiation by absorbing that radiation. Without it, our skin would burn within minutes outside.
Eric Dean Wilson 11:49
These two atmospheric chemists in the 70s realized that CFCs because they were so stable, and not interacting with anything, were just hanging around in the atmosphere until they got to the stratosphere, where they were messing up the whole planet’s atmospheric chemistry and depleting the ozone layer. So suddenly, within sort of a matter of a decade, you had major ozone depletion that was appearing at the poles of the planet over Antarctica, and then also the North Pole during October and November, almost complete absence of ozone, which is extremely alarming. Without the ozone layer, we wouldn’t, almost no life would be possible on Earth. That was very scary. These supposedly completely safe chemicals, suddenly, were responsible for imminent death of all life on the planet. That story has a very sort of happy ending, or a pretty good ending, which is that because the UN organized talks to figure out what to do about it, they were able to come up with something called the Montreal Protocol, which is still the world’s only legally binding international agreement to prevent environmental destruction from happening before it actually happens. The Paris Agreement is not legally binding, and is currently really a joke. And so we’ve never quite gotten there.
Eric Dean Wilson 13:00
Again, when I was learning about this, the history of this, I found that really inspiring because I thought, oh my goodness, we’ve actually done this already. True. It’s not on the scale of carbon dioxide. It’s not on the scale of climate change. But it could be what I saw in this history of the Montreal Protocol, which I didn’t really know a lot of. And as I began to learn about it, I realized that we sort of as a planet had already faced an unprecedented planetary threat through international negotiations, and actually came up with legislation that had faced down and then eventually phased out the use of these chemicals. By the 90s. This Montreal Protocol was so successful, businesses got on board, they realized they could make more money selling alternative chemicals. So again, profit is always sort of King under these sorts of problems. But it was more profitable for chemical companies to sell the alternatives. And really, by the year 2000, major production of CFCs had stopped entirely. The ozone hole is still appearing at the poles, but it’s way, way less than it used to be. And the core problem, the production of CFCs has stopped. So that’s fantastic.
Ruth Abraham 14:09
The success of a shrinking ozone hole is amazing.
Peterson Toscano 14:12
Yeah, I know. Right?
Lila Powell 14:13
So where do we go from here? What’s happening now with AC and how does it fit in with climate change,
Ruth Abraham 14:18
In his book, and in the interview, Eric talks about the devastating price of comfort.
Eric Dean Wilson 14:23
The United States has kind of exported this model for comfort elsewhere to China to India to Indonesia. And right now, the United States is in the habit of criticizing those nations who were asking for the same comforts that we are, even though we’re not doing hardly anything.
Ruth Abraham 14:37
Eric makes a really good point about the US holding up air conditioning as the end all for comfort. The reality is, other places have plenty of ways of addressing heat and cooling spaces.
Lila Powell 14:47
Totally. I remember I studied abroad in London over the summer and the buildings didn’t have AC. We just always had our windows open or hung out in the basement on hotter days. It was still just as comfortable. Plus, having fresh air and switching up our hangout spots was honestly really nice
Peterson Toscano 15:01
Building construction that keeps out the heat is nothing new. Last year, when I lived in South Africa, I was totally amazed at how our house stayed cool. With thick walls shading on multiple sides of the house and ventilation in the ceilings. We lived pretty comfortably without AC, when one space grew too warm, we then just moved to cooler spaces or onto the veranda.
Ruth Abraham 15:21
Eric also reveals the history of air conditioning and comfort is wrapped up in the USA’s racist history.
Eric Dean Wilson 15:28
The history of Eugenics in America, which America has a robust history of, is uncomfortably intertwined with the history of air conditioning. From the earliest days of air conditioning, it has been systematically denied to the black population because of racist notions of biology. For instance, there was a common belief in the 18th and 19th century that enslaved Africans could endure temperatures and also pain, a lot more than white people. And that is, of course: false. But it was a justification for the way that they were being treated. Comfort was systematically denied to them. This also shows up in the history of redlining communities. In New York, a great example of this is, you know, the Upper West Side, which is historically a very middle class white neighborhood, which is just really like 20 blocks from Harlem, which is historically a working and middle class black neighborhood, because of redlining and that racial segregation. 100 years ago, there was an investment in trees, shade infrastructure on the Upper West Side, but not in Harlem, the legacy of that a century later, is still present, so that you can walk just maybe 20 minutes from the Upper West Side, and you can experience an almost 10 degree difference on a hot summer day, we are living through the history, still of racial segregation, even though redlining is different, and we have more integrated neighborhoods, we’re still living through that racist history.
Lila Powell 16:50
Well, I never even thought about how shade affects the climate indoors,
Ruth Abraham 16:54
Right? And the fact that shade infrastructure differences in the Upper West Side and Harlem still impact residents today is shocking.
Lila Powell 17:02
So how are we supposed to combat this? What can we do?
Peterson Toscano 17:05
This was the most exciting part of Eric’s book for me, he helps us see a future that doesn’t rely on air conditioning for our comfort. It’s a future that looks so attractive to me.
Eric Dean Wilson 17:17
One of the things I call for in the book is rather than focusing on individual comfort and individual survival, to really try to rethink our notion of comfort, and think about collective comfort and collective survival, community survival. So things like how can we make our cities cooler without relying on air conditioning so much, those are things like major tree planting campaigns to make our cities greener, and also make access to green space easier and more equitable. In a place like New York, LA, Chicago, access to green space is a lot easier in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods. That’s a justice issue, we have to look at making our access to these shady neighborhoods, which can really help on a hot day accessible to all, you can actually live happily under a very different model of community or values. And I think that’s what I’m excited about and what I think is possible in the future.
Lila Powell 18:07
I’d love to see more green spaces and cities and developing shade infrastructure sounds so cool, no pun intended. I interned at the Brock Environmental Center. It’s one of the world’s greenest buildings and is located in Virginia Beach, which is the most populated city in Virginia. This totally changed the game for me because it showed me how self-reliant and environmentally friendly you can be while still being in a major city.
Eric Dean Wilson 18:49
Historically, the use of air conditioning has not been for survival. It’s been for comfort. And the irony is that we’ve relied on it so much that it’s made our planet hotter, not just air conditioning, but it’s been implicated in the warming of the planet so that it now has become a tool for survival because we’ve made the planet hotter.
Peterson Toscano 19:06
The good news is that architects and designers are taking these construction considerations seriously.
Eric Dean Wilson 19:11
The best architects understand how to integrate the environment into the design of a building. So I have a lot of hope with the future of building design. And I don’t think that we have to suffer through the coming warm years, I think that we can actually learn to live with our warming environment, perhaps less comfortably in the way that we think about it. But we should really ask ourselves whether the way we’re living now is making for a more comfortable planet overall,
Ruth Abraham 19:36
So much depends on our actions and attitudes. Each month, we are now offering you, our listener, meaningful next steps for you to consider taking. So these are going to be personal choices and actions while others are on a larger scale.
Lila Powell 19:49
So Ruth, after hearing her talk about the history of air conditioning and the future we need to co create what’s the next step that you suggest?
Ruth Abraham 19:55
Here’s my proposal. If green spaces are cooler then they should be everywhere. Green spaces are known for their positive effect on mental health. Happier residents sound like the recipe for a better place to call home. I visited a friend in Austin, Texas, and I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of space reserved for trees and lawns. As we traveled around Austin, the green spaces made me fall in love with the city. They were seemingly infinite places to lounge and connect with others. So how can you start building a green space, you can start small and like a seedling have your actions grow. My suggestion is to cool your living space with a plan or several. You can get houseplants that release extra moisture into your rooms. Some of these include spider plants, Jade, Boston ferns, and peace lilies. The plants help clean the air and cool things down. If you have a yard or green space on the sidewalk, see about planting a tree that provides cooling shade, you may need to connect with your municipality if that green space is part of a sidewalk. You can even get your neighborhood to join in on the effort. It’s these collective small steps that bring us closer to climate solutions
Lila Powell 21:01
How about you Peterson?
Peterson Toscano 21:03
There are so many hacks we can use to alter the temperature in our homes. But I want to propose something more ambitious. I love the idea of changing systems. Besides your own home, consider a building where you spend lots of time. It might be your school or where you work, shop or workout. In the summer. These spaces can have the air conditioning pumping so high it initially feels good when you come in from the heat. But after 20 minutes people start freezing. How about you begin a campaign to have the building operators increase the temperature by one or two degrees. In other words, lower the intensity of the air conditioning. Do a little research about who makes these decisions. Find out who else shares your concern, maybe even figure out a cost analysis of how the building operators will save money by decreasing the amount of AC in the summer. Then use your volunteer lobbying skills to advocate for this change.
Ruth Abraham 21:58
We will have links in our Dig Deeper section of our show notes to help you with your next step. Visit CCL usa.org/radio. That’s CCL usa.org/radio.
Lila Powell 22:11
Many thanks to Eric Dean Wilson for enlightening us on the history of air conditioning. He also challenged us to imagine a new world.
Ruth Abraham 22:17
Eric’s book is “After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort.” It’s published by Simon and Schuster. And it’s available wherever you get your books.
Lila Powell 22:27
You can also follow Eric on Twitter and Instagram at @EricDeanWilson. That’s @EricDeanWilson.
Peterson Toscano 22:34
And if you have ideas for cooling buildings and communities, email us That’s .
Ruth Abraham 22:44
This month we premiere a new section of our podcast. We love Tamara Stanton, and the Resilience Corner.
Lila Powell 22:50
She’s so encouraging and don’t worry, she will be back on the show in the very near future. But today we have a new corner that just opened on the show The Nerd Corner
Peterson Toscano 22:58
The Nerd Corner. It’s hosted by Dana Nuccitelli, Citizen Climates Research Coordinator. He’s an environmental scientist and climate journalist with a master’s degree in physics. Dana is wicked smart, and he can help non scientists like me understand the complex issues he writes about.
Lila Powell 23:17
Dana has agreed to come on our show with an audio version of the series he writes for the CCL community.
Dana Nuccitelli 23:23
Hi, I’m Dana Nuccitelli, CCL research coordinator, and this is the Nerd Corner. I’m here to highlight some interesting new climate research for the nerds out there. And to make it understandable for the nerd curious. In this episode, we consider the question: are clean technologies and renewable energies better for the environment than fossil fuels? The CCL research team gets asked this question a lot.
Dana Nuccitelli 23:47
The reality is every technology has some level of climate and environmental impact. And this includes renewables. To make a solar panel or wind turbine or battery, we first need to mine the earth for minerals. We then manufacture them into a technological product, then we transport that product to its final home. So how do the impacts of these green options measure up to the impacts of the fossil fuel technologies they’re replacing?
Dana Nuccitelli 24:14
There’s one key difference between technologies powered by fossil fuels and the cleaner alternatives. When the energy comes from coal, oil or gas, we’re just burning those fossil fuels. That means we always have to extract more fossil fuels from the earth to provide more energy. It never ends. For example, humans mine and burn 8 billion tons of coal every single year. For comparison, the World Bank estimates that in order to make the clean technologies needed to meet the Paris climate targets, we will need just 3.5 billion tons of minerals over the next 30 years. So by transitioning to clean technologies, we can massively reduce our overall mining footprints.
Dana Nuccitelli 24:54
But how do clean technologies require mining it all? You see we need to mine a lot of copper and zinc to make a wind turbine, solar panels require copper and silicon. And to make batteries to store that clean energy, we need lithium and other metals. The good news is that mining only happens once. Once it’s done, the solar panel just soaks up the sun, the wind turbine spins in the breeze, and a battery fills up on electrons that increasingly come from clean energy sources. And at the end of the product’s life, most of its minerals can be recycled to make new solar panels, wind turbines or batteries. In short, the answer is that it’s ultimately better for the environment to deploy clean technologies today than to continue interminably mining, drilling, refining, transporting and burning dirty fossil fuels.
Dana Nuccitelli 25:42
I’m Dana Nuccitelli. With the nerd corner, thank you for being curious and for your commitment to climate progress. To join the discussion about climate science, technology, economics and policy with CCL’s research team, check out the nerd corner at CCLusa.org/nerd-corner I hope to see you there.
Ruth Abraham 26:05
Thank you, Dana. If you have a question for Dana, email us at That’s . We will make sure he gets your question
Lila Powell 26:16 and read more analysis by Dana by visiting CCLusa.org/nerd-corner That’s CCLusa.org/nerd-corner.
Peterson Toscano 26:26
It is time for our good news story with Ruth Abraham.
Ruth Abraham 26:31
Last month I brought my amazing virtual internship to life by attending CCL SE’s regional conference. Citizens’ Climate Leaders organized the weekend around the theme of building a secure energy future. The second I stepped foot into the Keneada building for innovative sustainable design. I was mesmerized by the world’s 20th building to receive a living building certification. And what does that mean? It’s leading global innovation in energy efficient building design. It’s decked out with natural lighting that powers the solar canopies from top to bottom, the whole building is sustainable. They even have a compostable toilet system and no they were not stinky. Their heating and cooling system is unique. Through garden hoses like pipes. They use radiant heating. When they want to cool the building down. They run chilled water so that tubing in the concrete floor and that cools down the concrete, which cools down the building.
I introduced myself to another person who looked to be about my age. Turns out she was a student at Georgia Tech currently undergoing advocate training with the hopes of starting a Citizens’ Climate chapter on our campus in the upcoming year. The speakers inspired me. My very own Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock congratulated CCL on a work well done. Senator Warnock recognized the success of volunteer lobbying, and if you want to know how to do it yourself, well check out last month’s episode about lobbying. Then, we heard Atlanta’s Chief Sustainability Officer Candra Foley detail the city’s moves towards sustainability. This was long before sustainability was ever even given that label. Next up was energy program and conservation coordinator Aaron Hall from nearby Athens Clarke County, home of Georgia Tech’s rivals UGA, he reminded us that local governments must push sustainability initiatives and must also get buy-in from different departments and community members.
Many of us ate at a local pizza place to continue our conversation and soak in the day’s information over the meal. I learned about CCL’s people of the global majority group. Oh, and I may have inadvertently joined a book club. It was so good I returned for day two. I was truly touched and inspired. I walked away with conference induced euphoria. And with the closing remarks ringing in my ears,” if it can happen in the southeast. It can happen anywhere.”
Well, Lila, I have even more good news for you. The Citizens’ Climate international conference and lobby day will be held June 10 to June 13, 2023. In Washington DC. It will be CCLs biggest day of climate lobbying since 2019. The Citizens’ Climate Conference includes everything you’ll need to power up your climate advocacy. And Peterson I heard a rumor you were going to lead a storytelling workshop at the conference?
Peterson Toscano 29:46
I can totally confirm that rumor. Yes, there will be a lot of breakout sessions. They’re awesome, including one I will lead on telling effective stories. You’re going to learn everything you need and more so that you can meet with your members of Congress on Capitol Hill and Talk to them about climate change.
Ruth Abraham Thank you for joining us for Episode 83 of Citizens’ Climate Radio
Special thanks to the members of our Advisory Board: Tamara Staton, Meggie Stenback, Katie Zakrzewski, Sharon Bagatell, Caillie Roach, Solemi Hernandez, Hannah Rogers, Sean Dague, and Brett Cease.
Citizens’ Climate Radio is written and produced by Ruth Abraham, Lila Powell, and Peterson Toscano. Other technical support from Ricky Bradley and Brett Cease. Social media assistance from Ashley Hunt-Martorano, Flannery Winchester, Katie Zakrzewski, Syeda Naqvi, and Steve Valk. Moral support from Madeline Para.
The music on today’s show comes from Epidemicsound.com.
Citizens’ Climate Radio is a project of Citizens’ Climate Education.