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August 4, 2012

Slate: A defense of air conditioning

NEW YORK — There's a scam going around this summer, one that takes advantage of the record heat. An unsolicited phone call or text message offers the promise of federal assistance with soaring electricity bills: Just hand over your Social Security number and a few other bits of personal data, and you'll receive up to $1,000 toward the cost of your air conditioning. What makes this phishing scheme so effective — and so especially galling — is the fact that the home subsidies it purports to offer aren't already in place.

Every year, the government sets aside billions of dollars to help low-income families pay for home heating and cooling. But ever since that program was put in place around 30 years ago, it's been clear that not all temperatures are granted equal protection under the law. Nine-tenths of the low-income home energy budget is spent during the winter months, says Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association. In other words, if you're poor and shivering, help is on the way. If you're poor and sweaty, you'll have to suck it up.

This anti-cooling bias doesn't begin or end in Washington, D.C. Eighty-seven percent of American homes now have air conditioners, up from 68 percent in 1993, and yet a backlash against A/C appears to be on high. In June, The New York Times reported on the rapid spread of the appliance in the developing world, and the climate crisis that might result.

A related piece, by the former head of the United Nations ozone program, compared air conditioning to the consumption of fatty foods — a dangerous luxury that makes us soft both in spirit and in flesh. Others have blamed A/C for the rise in obesity rates, a claim for which there's no good evidence, but never mind: The idea that America's various addictions might be linked together, that overeating and overspending and overcooling could all be part of the same disfiguring condition of modernity, is simply too delicious for some people to ignore.

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