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Cruelest Summer

What is the cost of comfort?

After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort by Eric Dean Wilson. Simon & Schuster, 480 pages.

Last week, in the formerly temperate Pacific Northwest, power cables melted, roads buckled, and nearly a hundred people died as the mercury rose to heretofore unheard of highs. In Portland, Oregon, it hit 116 degrees—hotter than Los Angeles, Dallas, or Miami have ever been. Multiple cites in the state of Washington surpassed 115 degrees. Meanwhile, across the border in Canada on Tuesday, one small village tied with Death Valley for the highest temperature recorded that day in North America—121 degrees—only to be incinerated by a fast-moving wildfire days later.

Summer in the northern hemisphere may officially only be two weeks old, but since the start of June, Texas has seen a scorcher that threatened the state’s electric grid; heatwaves have roiled the Middle East and Central Asia, with temperatures topping 125 degrees; and ground temperatures in Siberia have reached 118 degrees, melting chunks of permafrost containing tons of pent-up, planet-warming methane. Every new high is a harsh reminder that the climate crisis is upon us. There is no subtlety left to climate change—it is merely wreaking the havoc we were all amply warned of.  The bad weather is here to stay. 

On Friday, an underwater gas pipeline ruptured in the Gulf of Mexico, setting the ocean on fire. Living in New Orleans, I typically pay close attention to this particular body of water for several months out of every year, regardless of whether or not it’s engulfed in flames. Last October, at the tail end of the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record, I followed news of a tropical storm forming in the Gulf. Graphics released by the National Hurricane Center show the projected path of a storm several days out from landfall, an X marking the storm’s current location, with two lines fanning out from each side and growing further apart the closer they get to solid ground. The lines meet again at the end of a storm’s track and the interior of this bulbous shape is filled in with a shade of semitransparent white, creating an abstract speech bubble emanating from the depths of the Gulf. Inside of this bubble is what meteorologists call “the cone of uncertainty.” If you added up all the days Louisiana spent within this cone last summer, it would amount to about a month. 

In 1955, about 2 percent of U.S. residents had air-conditioning; by 1980, it could be found in more than half of all U.S. homes.

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.

Air-conditioning is a relatively new phenomenon. Like other corollaries of American “progress”—snapshot photography and nuclear weapons, mobile phones and machine guns—mechanical cooling has reshaped the world, both materially and culturally. While one of the earliest air-conditioners dates to the 1850s, Wilson argues that America’s obsession with climate control—what we’ve come to call “comfort”—didn’t take hold until much later. As Wilson explains, one of the earliest air-conditioning systems was not even built for human comfort.

When the New York Stock Exchange was redesigned at the start of the twentieth century, the building commission worried about the internal temperature of the building. Beams of sun shooting through large glass windows would make the trading floor hellish during the hot summer months; the traders would be miserable, but of greater concern was that trade would be compromised as a result. To avoid that, an engineer installed a vast system of ducts to send mechanically cooled air through vents in the trading floor, stabilizing the temperature for the sake of keeping stock trades moving. Around the same time, manufacturing began to utilize air-conditioning to maximize profit, cooling places down or heating them up depending on the needs of particular products. For a material like cotton, which required high humidity, conditions for workers could be excruciating. For products like camera film reliant on cool, dry air, workers labored in a more agreeable atmosphere.

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.

But when Thomas Midgley, Jr. introduced the world to Freon in 1930, the eccentric engineer was determined to demonstrate the chemical’s safety. Unlike other industrial refrigerants, Freon was a stable chemical compound—odorless, noncorrosive, nonflammable, and nontoxic. It also had a spectacularly low boiling point, making it ideal for refrigeration and air-conditioning. On a conference stage in front of some of the nation’s top chemists, Midgley boiled the supercooled liquid in a glass pail then inhaled its vapors, an act likened by Wilson to a giant bong rip. Midgley then exhaled the refrigerant gas into a separate glass pail containing a lit candle. The flame was extinguished; applause ensued. 

Before developing Freon, Midgely was pivotal in the 1921 creation of another harmful concoction: leaded gasoline, an invention that enabled the smooth functioning of internal combustion engines and poisoned countless people. Even in the earliest days of leaded gas, hundreds of workers involved in its manufacturing suffered from lead exposure, causing them to hallucinate and develop permanent brain damage. Several workers were fatally poisoned, including one man who reportedly died in a straitjacket, violently insane. Despite its dangers, lead was distributed throughout the environment by gas-powered automobiles for decades—until its ban in 1996—exposing millions to a well-known toxin.

Wilson seeks to handle Midgley’s story with nuance, taking into consideration that the inventor—who died in 1944, long before the banning of chlorofluorocarbon and leaded gasoline—likely passed away thinking he had materially improved the world. “He believed his work would open the door for the complete eradication of viral pandemics, the elimination of food spoilage, and increased comfort and health (for some, for some time) in an artificially cooler world,” writes Wilson. “And in fact, it did, though it’s now difficult to see his inventions beyond their environmental impact.” While Wilson might be understating this difficulty, the pages that follow clearly illustrate harm.

After Cooling concisely charts how Midgley’s “chemical progeny” helped secure a victory for the Allied forces during World War II, as air-conditioning allowed for the streamlined, round-the-clock production of warships, bullets, and bombs, “extend[ing] the limitations of time and space by homogenizing the air.” After the war, air-conditioning helped enable the suburbanization of less temperate regions like the sunbelt. The single-family home became increasingly sealed off and separate from the outside world, laying the foundation for an insular form of architecture and a new concept of domestic comfort. “Air-conditioning was born of a certain American belief in the nation’s invincibility, its power to master the wildest aspect of the earth: the weather,” writes Wilson. In 1955, about 2 percent of U.S. residents had air-conditioning; by 1980, it could be found in more than half of all U.S. homes. Climate control spread to vehicles, too, first as an option and then as a standard feature. All of this was, of course, fueled by Freon.  

America exported this standard of comfort to the rest of the world. The consequences have been catastrophic.

Some forty years after its invention, Freon was everywhere. Along with being in air-conditioners, cars, refrigerators, and aerosol-spray cans, it was also in the atmosphere, producing a bonafide climate emergency: the depletion of the ozone layer, aptly described by Wilson as “quite simply, what makes possible all life on Earth.” The story of how scientists detected the danger of CFCs and how the transition away from the ubiquitous chemical has played out is one of After Cooling’s most complex and riveting narratives. It’s also where the book begins to closely connect with the present, revealing how we may have averted one crisis, but steered directly into another. In 1987, an international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol was drafted in order to phase out the use of ozone-destroying chemicals throughout the world. It’s since been signed by 197 countries. While there are indications that the ozone layer has healed since scientists first discovered its Freon-induced damage, Wilson estimates the final traces of the ozone-depleting chemical will not fully disappear from the atmosphere until roughly 3021.

While the use of CFCs tapered off, the use of air-conditioning increased. Alternative refrigerants—namely hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—allowed us to continue keeping things cool. However, HFCs are potent greenhouse gases that heavily contribute to global warming. “Beyond the energy consumption of individual systems, the appearance of HFCs as a solution pushed us even further into the climate crisis by encouraging the overall spread of air-conditioning, a growth that assumed we could increase our consumption of energy without significant cost to the planet,” Wilson writes.

Why this fixation, though? When considering some of the key contributors to climate change like fossil fuel consumption, intensive agriculture, and deforestation, why focus on air-conditioning? These questions went through my mind when I first picked up After Cooling, but I realized early on that Wilson was focusing on climate control to discuss how larger cultural forces like Western hegemony, rampant industrialism, and mass consumerism facilitated its spread. His writing is thoughtful and informed by an eclectic mix of research, including scientific articles, environmental reporting, American history, critical theory, television, and science fiction. It’s also occasionally dense, particularly when Wilson attends to biochemistry and climate policy.

In one passage, Wilson quotes James Baldwin: “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” Over half a century later, Baldwin’s words still feel like they’re referencing a moment that has yet to arrive. Wilson posits that at the time of Baldwin’s writing, white, middle-class prosperity was weakening the resolve of Americans, making the comfortable “less likely to risk creating short-term personal instability for the possibility of a better world.” Comfort became something that could be purchased by an individual rather than attained by a collective. What’s more, America exported this standard of comfort to the rest of the world. The consequences have been catastrophic. In China, sales of air-conditioners have grown fivefold since 2000, as have carbon dioxide emissions.

For Wilson, whether an individual uses an air-conditioner is not the problem; rather, it’s the mechanisms in place that allow us to do so without giving it much thought. “The point is not to eradicate comfort,” he writes, “but to overthrow our definition of it, to question our threshold of discomfort, and to confront the fact that our comfort is contingent on the discomfort of others.” Of all the world’s weather phenomena, extreme heat poses the greatest risk: a 2015 heat wave in Pakistan, where few have air-conditioning, killed over one thousand people. Last week, Jacobabad in Pakistan’s Sindh province became the hottest city on earth when temperatures hit 126 degrees, hotter than the human body can handle. As the world warms faster than scientists’ grimmest predictions, air-conditioning will become increasingly essential to the preservation of human life—even as it continues to heat up the planet, putting the most vulnerable among us in even greater peril. Whether a more “sustainable” form or definition of comfort is possible remains to be seen.

When the storm I was monitoring back in October started getting closer, I began to worry. It ended up making landfall in southeast Louisiana as Hurricane Zeta, a Category 3. Top winds were 115 miles-per-hour; it was the latest in the season a major storm had ever made landfall in the continental United States. Zeta barreled straight toward New Orleans, and I watched its arrival from my front door. Perhaps this is one way the world gets broken up. The storm clouds cleared as the eye of the storm passed over the city. It happened just as the sun was setting, a weird and beautiful moment of calm not before the storm, but in between it. Then the sky darkened again, the wind picked back up, and out went the power.