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Air Conditioning is Great for Everyone (Except the Air)

Air conditioning, both in our homes and cars, has become so ubiquitous that we hardly give it a second thought. And with each new year becoming the new hottest on record—a disturbing trend with no signs of stopping—cranking up the AC is happening more frequently, even in places where it was hardly ever a consideration. (Remember that 113-degree day in Portland, OR in 2021?) So as the weather warms, we try to cool ourselves with AC, and sadly and ironically, that’s causing the planet to warm even more. Really, you can’t make this stuff up. 

So the next time you want to “chill out” by turning on your air conditioner, just remember that you’re actually cranking up the heat. On the planet. And this is all thanks to a nasty family of chemicals commonly and collectively referred to as “freon.”  

Freon is a trademarked name used to refer to several different refrigerants, including hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) which are currently being phased out in the U.S., and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were phased out in the 1990s. 

What makes them so nasty? These chemicals eventually reach the stratosphere — between 6 and 30 miles above earth — where the very important ozone layer is located that’s supposed to absorb about 90% of the sun’s cancer-causing ultra-violet radiation (UVB).  

Phasing out these ozone-depleting substances is expected to prevent more thean 280 million cases of skin cancer, 1.6 million skin cancer deaths, and more than 45 million cases of cataracts (in the U.S. for people born up through 2100). Also, besides cancer mitigation, ozone layer depletion harms life we depend on for survival around the globe: 

Plants & Crops — UVB radiation affects the physiological and developmental process of plants, including how nutrients are distributed in a plant and resistance to disease. Crop yield throughout the food chain is also greatly affected.  

Marine Ecosystems — Phytoplankton (the foundation of all aquatic food webs) living near the surface of the water have reduced survival rates due to UVB radiation. Development of fish, shrimp, crab, amphibians, and other marine animals is also affected.  

This is especially bad news as so many around the world embrace a more plant-and-fish-based diet. Depletion of the ozone layer from HCVCs and CFCs not only affects our bodies and the food chain, but it accelerates damage to our living environments. Ultraviolet radiation dries out the resins in paints on our vehicles, homes and furniture, causing it to shrink, crack and fade. Plastic products are especially vulnerable to the effects of ozone-depletion, resulting in discoloration, cracking and loss of structural integrity. 

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. With all of the dangers of HCFCs and CFCs contributing to global warming and depletion of the ozone layer, a variety of climate-friendlier, energy-efficient substitutions are now available, including natural refrigerants, hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HFCs) with a lower global-warming potential (GWP), Hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) and HFC-HFO blends. Yeah, it’s a lot of long words and abbreviations, but at least they mean something positive. 

While those alternatives are being implemented by manufacturers in products from refrigerators to air conditioners, here are 5 easy ways you can help alleviate global warming right now, today, and without working up a sweat: 

1 Start Walking — Use your vehicle (even a hybrid or electric) less and walk more. Walking is not only better for the planet’s health, but it’s great exercise and the outdoors is where they keep all the fresh air and natural breezes! 

2 Public Transportation — If you need to get somewhere, use buses, trains and subways as often as you can. Even if these are air-conditioned environments, it’s easier and less harmful to the environment to cool 20 people in one vehicle than 20 people in 20 vehicles. 

3 Plant a Tree — Planting trees or other lush vegetation around your house not only reduces CO2, but it also creates beneficial shade that can help reduce energy usage throughout the year.  

4 Change Your Filter— Replacing dirty air-conditioner filters can save 350 pounds of CO2 in a year, plus $150 in energy costs. 

5 Turn-Down Service — Just setting your air conditioner 2 degrees lower in the summer (and your heat 2 degrees lower in the winter) can save about 2,000 pounds of CO2 each year. 

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