Residential air-conditioning and climate change: voices of the vulnerable

Health Promot J Austr. 2011 Dec;22(4):13-15.


Issue addressed: Decreasing the risk of heat-stress is an imperative in health promotion, and is widely accepted as necessary for successful adaptation to climate change. Less well understood are the vulnerabilities that air-conditioning use exacerbates, and conversely, the need for the promotion of alternative strategies for coping with heat wave conditions. This paper considers these issues with a focus on the role of air-conditioning in the everyday life of elderly public housing tenants living alone, a sector of the population that has been identified as being at high risk of suffering heat stress.

Methods: A vulnerability analysis of domestic air-conditioning use, drawing on literature and policy on air-conditioning practices and ethnographic research with households.

Results: Residential air-conditioning exacerbated existing inequities. Case studies of two specifically selected low-income elderly single person households revealed that such households were unlikely to be able to afford this 'solution' to increasing exposure to heat waves in the absence of energy subsidies. Residential air-conditioning use during heat waves caused unintended side-effects, such as system-wide blackouts, which, in turn, led to escalating electricity costs as power companies responded by upgrading infrastructure to cope with periods of excess demand. Air-conditioning also contributed to emissions that cause climate change.

Conclusions: Residential air-conditioning is a potentially maladaptive technology for reducing the risk of heat stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Air Conditioning*
  • Climate Change*
  • Conservation of Natural Resources
  • Health Promotion*
  • Heat Stress Disorders / prevention & control
  • Hot Temperature
  • Housing*
  • Humans
  • Policy
  • Public Health
  • Vulnerable Populations*