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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Record-breaking Pacific Northwest heat offers a window into the global need for more air conditioning as climate change makes heat waves more extreme.

Why it matters: Extreme heat is the deadliest weather hazard in the U.S. and many other countries, and with average temperatures climbing due to climate change, the risks and severity of heat waves are escalating even faster.

Driving the news: The recent extremes — which saw Portland, Oregon, hit a staggering 116 degrees and the obliteration of many other all-time records — caused a run on air conditioning units in Seattle, Portland, British Columbia and other areas.

The big picture: The regional sales are small compared to the surge of global cooling equipment needed in the years ahead, in industrialized countries but especially the developing world.

  • That's driven by higher standards of living that enable more people to buy amenities widely available in richer nations.
  • But it's also a matter of life or death as some regions see heat and humidity extremes that will teeter on the edge of what humans can survive.

Yes, but: Inefficient air conditioners use a lot of energy. Especially in places where electricity doesn't come from clean sources, it'll be a challenge to deal with the heat caused by global warming without adding even more greenhouse gas emissions.

By the numbers: Roughly 2 billion air conditioning units are in operation worldwide, per a 2020 International Energy Agency (IEA) report. The global number of units installed could rise by two-thirds by 2030, per IEA.

  • 35% of the world's population lives in countries where the average temperature is 77°F — extremes can vastly exceed this — and only 10% of that group own air conditioners.
  • A 2017 study in Nature Climate Change found that 30% of the world’s population is currently exposed to climatic conditions exceeding a deadly threshold for at least 20 days a year.
  • By 2100, this percentage is projected to increase to about 48% even under a scenario with drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, or about 74% with growing emissions.

Threat level: The group Sustainable Energy for All estimates there are 1.1 billion people among the rural and urban poor at "high risk" from lack of cooling across 54 "high-impact" nations.

  • However, its report last month also estimates that another 2.34 billion lower-middle-income people will soon be able to obtain air conditioning and refrigeration.
  • The catch: "Price sensitivity and limited purchasing options mean they favor devices that are likely to be inefficient, threatening energy systems and resulting in increased GHG emissions," the report finds.

What we're watching: How much of the world's growing global cooling needs will be met with highly efficient units and buildings, use of heat pumps, low-impact coolants and systems plugged into grids with high amounts of zero-carbon power remains to be seen.

  • A separate IEA report last month, which models a global energy system that achieves "net-zero" emissions by 2050, finds it's possible to massively expand cooling in an emissions-friendly way.
  • In that scenario, the number of air conditioning units in emerging and developing economies specifically rises by 650 million by 2030 and another 2 billion by 2050.
  • But under their hugely ambitious model — not a prediction! — a basket of clean technologies nonetheless helps to cut CO2 emissions from the world's buildings by 95% by 2050.

Of note: "The answers to cooling go beyond air conditioning. Building design, city design, cooling strategies all have to work to ensure the A/C doesn’t have to work so hard," Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, told Axios.

What they're saying: "The first thing that needs to be reckoned with is that even in the current climate, too many people die of extreme heat for lack of air conditioning and because a few relatively simple, low-cost approaches are not effectively implemented by governments or individuals," Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University, told Axios.

  • Cities that establish cooling centers, Oppenheimer said, may not be placing them in the most accessible areas.
  • He noted that in Chicago, about one-third of cooling centers are located in police precincts. "Think about that in [the] context of the populations least likely to have air conditioning," he said.

Go deeper

UN warns of "catastrophic" climate change failure without more emissions cuts

UN Secretary-General António Guterres at a news conference. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

A United Nations report released Friday warned that the planet will likely warm by more than 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century unless governments take extra steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Why it matters: The report, released just months ahead of November's UN Climate Summit, highlights the growing pressure on global leaders to crack down on emissions to avert the worst effects of climate change.

Axios roundtable on the future of climate change and lung health

On Wednesday, September 15, Axios’ health care reporter Caitlin Owens and climate and energy reporter Andrew Freedman hosted a virtual roundtable discussion with policy leaders, healthcare professionals, and environmental experts on the impact of climate change on people living with respiratory illnesses. 

Andrew Lindsley, Medical Director and Asset Lead at Amgen, started off the conversation by addressing the gravity of climate change as it relates to lung health and respiratory diseases.

  • “Climate change can directly cause or aggravate pre-existing respiratory diseases, and they can drive an increased exposure to risk factors associated with respiratory diseases, including asthma.”

National Assistant Vice President of Healthy Air at the American Lung Association, Laura Kate Bender, explained how recent research confirmed that devastating wildfires have negatively impacted air quality levels. 

  • “What we found is that we are continuing to see the impact of climate change on the quality of the air nationwide. Where that really showed up in this year’s report was with particle pollution. We saw more people were exposed to harmful short-term levels of particle pollution that we can tie back to the wildfires.”   

Executive Director of Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute, Dr. Gabriel Filippelli, referenced a study he conducted in several U.S. cities to highlight the connection between small vehicle transit usage and decreases in levels of NO2, a harmful lung irritant.  

  • “It shows a roadmap that with different transportation systems of different models or even electrifying vehicles, it can have a significant local improvement in air quality and also deal with climate change at the same time.” 

Abby Young, Manager of Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s Climate Protection Program, described how climate change especially exacerbates health issues among vulnerable populations.

  • “When a community is already suffering from a high degree of air pollution and respiratory ailments, and then you layer on all these impacts that we’re talking about from climate change, you make a bad situation even worse.”

Interim Director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School for Public Health, Aaron Bernstein, emphasized the importance of broader social change in ensuring equitable access to healthcare. 

  • “My biggest hope in this year is that we realize that we can no longer work on issues related to climate or pandemics by trying to build more technological limbs on a tree of life. Through our technologies, our ventilation systems, our vaccines, our drugs. We obviously need those, they’re critical and we have to get people vaccinated, but as we’ve already shown, those things benefit the people who are least at risk first.”   

Research scientist at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University, Dr. Juan Aguilera, noted the importance of understanding the intricate make-up of particles that enter our lungs as air quality levels continue to fluctuate.

  • “We’re currently researching on what are the effects on the immune system, because as we breathe in these pollutants, it’s also important to notice what’s in the pollutants. We can no longer just focus on the size of the particle, we must know what’s in the particle and what are the effects on the respiratory system, the circulatory system, and the immune system. We’re getting to that point.” 

Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association, articulated the significance of focusing on vulnerable communities in mitigating the effects of climate change on a policy level. 

  • “We ought to recognize that the fact that we have these vulnerable communities and where they are, it’s not a secret. These are the same communities that have food insecurity, housing insecurity, income insecurity. While they may have been exposed to some degree because of wildfires that are broader in nature, in terms of polluting the air and floods that are now capturing the communities in which they live, we just have to remember that these communities, while everyone will experience them pretty much the same, these other communities are much less resilient, and they don’t recover.” 

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) acknowledged the crucial role that policymakers play in shaping the future of environmental policy, noting the opportunity and responsibility that lawmakers have to act quickly on the matter. 

  • “I, for one, will be working to ensure passage of the Build Back Better Act, it has this huge footprint that will implement provisions throughout the country and the state to be able to assure that the warming climate will be addressed.” 

Thank you Amgen for sponsoring this event. 

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
3 hours ago - Science

All-civilian Inspiration4 is back on Earth after flight to space

A side-by-side of the Inspiration4 crew and a shot of their capsule on the way back to Earth. Photo: SpaceX

The all-civilian Inspiration4 crew is back on Earth after their three-day mission in orbit.

The big picture: The launch and landing of this fully amateur, private space crew marks a changing of the guard from spaceflight being a largely government-led venture to being under the purview of private companies.