With this summer the hottest on record for the U.S., air conditioner use has risen with the temperature, setting new power demand records in some areas. Cranking up the air conditioner has an unfortunate, and ironic effect: ultimately, it contributes to the rising outdoor temperatures the AC is supposed to fight. It’s not just the electricity use that adds to global warming; new coolants in chemicals are thousands of times more potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. So why is there a new article in Slate written in defense of air conditioners?

The Slate article argues that air conditioners can be necessary for protecting health and even saving lives, which is true. In Chicago in 1995, hundreds of people died in a heat wave in part because they didn’t have access to air conditioning. When temperatures continue well above 100 degrees for days, as they have in much of the country this summer, it’s hard to imagine living without AC.

Slate also points out that heating homes in winter is just as bad for climate change, if not worse. But the fact that heating contributes to global warming doesn’t mean we should encourage more air conditioning use. Since it seems almost certain that more hot summers are on the way—and people do need to stay cool—what we need instead are two major changes in the options for AC.

First, air conditioners can use over 3,000 watts of electricity each hour (for comparison, a typical incandescent light bulb uses only 100 watts). Switching to renewable energy sources, instead of using electricity from fossil-fuel power plants, goes a long way to reducing the impact of air conditioning. If you own your home, you can get solar panels; renters in many areas have the option of paying to support renewable energy through their utility companies.

The other challenge of air conditioners is harder to address. Older air conditioners used CFCs for coolants, and these were banned because of effects on the ozone layers. But the replacement for CFCs turned out to be very potent, damaging greenhouse gases. Although manufacturers now have new models that have yet another replacement, it’s hard not to wonder if the latest coolants may have another unintended effect. They haven’t passed all regulatory hurdles yet, so they’re not currently on the market.

For now, while air conditioning may be absolutely necessary on some days in some climates, there are also times that it can be reduced or eliminated. Case in point: a Los Angeles office building I once worked in kept the air conditioning on high even when it was a perfect 72 degrees outside. It was so cold it was uncomfortable, and employees wore sweaters in the middle of the summer.

Turn off the AC when you can.

Main photo credit: ToddMorris/Flickr