By Jenny Noble
“A great irony of global warming is that the means of keeping cool makes warming worse” -Drawdown
What’s the hottest you’ve ever been? That time you were gills-to-breathe, flip-flops-stuck-to-asphalt, torture-chamber hot. Almost everyone’s been there.
For me, it was Phnom Penn, Cambodia, 2019. I remember my son and I slugging through temples that shimmered under the sweat dripping into my eyeballs. I heard little of what the guide said about the Khmer Rouge through the pounding in my ears as we slouched across the infamous killing fields.
We’d head out at the crack of dawn with the best of intentions, then by 10 a.m. be done for the day, retreating to our hotel, for the false promise of a tepid pool and a fan blowing warm air our way. I watched a British couple arguing with a waiter because they weren’t being seated at a table in front of the fan. Even though it oscillated. Even though it was 7 a.m. As for us, we were too hot to argue, even with each other.
However miserable we felt, we were obviously the lucky ones. When the hydro-powered electricity started running out and the city went into rolling brownouts, we could pick up and move hotels to the only district that had 24-hour electricity — where the prime minister lived. People in Phnom Penn, as in much of the “inhabitable” world, couldn’t escape. Our guide explained that Cambodians weren’t used to this kind of heat either, and couldn’t catch a break, even at night.
“Since it’s impossible to sleep in such heat, everyone’s in a perpetual state of exhaustion,” he explained.
Without the reprieve of air conditioning, heat can be a multi-headed monster. Bodily changes of as little as a single degree above the sweet spot of 98.6 can cause heat rash, headache, dizziness, nausea, cramps and a quick, weak pulse. As your core temperature rises further, the body starts losing its ability to cope. Your brain can’t get enough blood, leading to confusion, delirium and even hallucinations. Once you reach 103 degrees, your bodily functions start to grind to a halt. You stop sweating altogether, and your blood pressure drops, heightening the risk of cardiac failure.
It was easier back in 2019 to feel like we were on the proverbial last flight out of Saigon, escaping this slow moving Cambodian catastrophe.
But of course, we weren’t. Global warming is causing heat waves to be hotter, larger, to last longer and to be more frequent. They already occur three times as often as they did in the 1960s. Today, heat kills more people in the United States than hurricanes and floods combined.
The irony is that how we cool down is heating up the planet. Air conditioning is a uniquely power hungry appliance and major contributor to climate change. Just one small unit cooling a single room, typically consumes more power than running four refrigerators. Over all, air conditioners make up about 6 percent of energy use in the United States each year. Some studies predict that by 2050, roughly 25 percent of global warming will be caused by air conditioning.
In order to keep our planet from becoming intolerably hot, we need to turn down our air conditioners right now.
Full disclosure: When I told my daughter that I was writing a column about wasteful Americans using too much AC, she said, “Oh, you mean like people who leave the window open with the AC blasting?” as I slunk away to shut the window.
For those of us who are in good health, getting used to the heat is easier than you’d think. Start by turning your AC up one degree every couple of days so that you can acclimate slowly. They say that adapting to a hotter climate can take up to two weeks. For me, it took about three weeks to finally acclimate to 78 degrees. Now it feels normal.
Whether it’s a state of mind or a biological adjustment, human comfort is adaptive, not objective. Frederick Rohles, a psychologist and expert in the field of thermal regulation, conducted studies showing that subjects who were shown a false thermometer displaying a high temperature felt warm, even if the room was cool.
Luckily, there are a variety of ways to stay cool, without using a lot of AC. Biddle Duke, who almost never uses it at his house in the Springs, subscribes to the more old school approach to summer: Keep windows and doors open all the time with ceiling fans going. And always eat outside. Use shade to your advantage by closing doors on the sunny side of the house, then in the evening, opening them to let in the cool night air.
“It’s so much better than living in a hermetically sealed environment,” says Duke. “Being in the elements, hearing the breeze and the birds … It’s part of the deal.”
Keeping cool at night will become trickier. Local meteorologist Frank Castelli explains that, “As our oceans get warmer, moisture is going to cause the night time temperature to rise faster than daytime temps.”
To cool off at night, trade your regular pillow for cooling foam pillow. Invest in super-breathable sheets designed for warm climates. Keeping a pitcher of cold water and a glass by your bed can help you avoid dehydration.
Position your fan strategically. Put it closer to the floor where the air is cooler, and face it so that the breeze bounces back off the opposite wall. If you put a shallow bowl of ice in front of the fan, it creates an impromptu air conditioner. And always cool only the rooms you’re using.
Make your house more energy efficient, so that the AC won’t have to work as hard (plus you’ll save loads of money over the years). It’s estimated that a well-insulated home saves 15 times the energy of an uninsulated home. Also, invest in a smart thermostat that can be programmed to heat and cool according to your schedule (think of the brain power you’ll save not having to turn down the AC when you go out).
Here on the East End, it’s easy to believe that our deliciously cool ocean breezes and intensely green landscape will buffer us against what so much of the world is going through. But already, this isn’t your grandmother’s Hamptons, and it’s only going to get a lot hotter. A state-funded ClimAID study projects that by mid-century, Long Island will experience an average of 45 days over 90 degrees per year, compared to an average nine such days historically.
So Planet Fans — let’s all start making summer feel like summer again.
I asked my friend, Lil, who’s from New Orleans, “When was the hottest you’ve ever been?” She laughed. “This morning … all the time!” She said that growing up, they didn’t have AC, yet they lived to tell the tale. “We sat out on screened-in porches, fanning ourselves and eating frozen grapes. That’s just how we all got together.”
Staying Cool At Home
energy.gov: (Type in“save energy, save money”) for so many ways to cool your home environmentally.
smart.thermostatguide.com: Type in “six things you should do before you replace your current thermostat with a smart thermostat” to decide if you should install one yourself.
Whole House Fan: Works quietly and quickly to cool the whole house, pulling pollutants out of the air and bringing in fresh outside air, while saving on electricity (ACInfinity.com for the best rated fans).
Best Energy Efficient ACs: The websites LeafScore and Treehugger offer up to date information on the top eco-friendly styles. Or search the phrase “Living in a hot zone” and find a list of the most energy efficient AC units available.
Cooling Foam Pillow: Cool foam and gel filled pillows can be found at Tempur-Pedic ($126.75) or Therapedic ($33.59).