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3 Sep, 2019 08:36

Sweaty and proud: Why Europe doesn’t cool itself off with air conditioning

Sweaty and proud: Why Europe doesn’t cool itself off with air conditioning

Northern Europeans have traditionally looked down on their American cousins for relying on home air conditioning. However, with temperatures rising they’re starting to feel the heat, and beginning to embrace the American way.

From the muggy swamp of Washington DC to the arid heat of Texas, America is the land of air conditioning. AC units hum away outside 90 percent of homes, restaurants, and offices across the land, and few Americans have to subject themselves to the elements for longer than a few minutes at a time. From the air-conditioned home, to the air-conditioned car, to the air-conditioned office, and then on to the air-conditioned bar for happy hour, life is a series of short walks between cocoons of icy comfort.

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Things are a little different in Europe. While air conditioners are common in the warmer south - the Greeks, for example, depend on them - the Viking-blooded northern Europeans would rather put up with the heat. Some of this, of course, has to do with the region’s cooler climate, but even on hot days, Germans, Brits and Dutch will choose to shutter their windows and strip off their clothes before investing in AC, while the French will sooner dip their toes into a public fountain.

In true Protestant style, they argue that air conditioning is decadent and wasteful. In 1992, Cambridge University Professor Gwyn Prins called the US’ reliance on chilled air the country’s “most pervasive and least-noticed epidemic,” while German news magazine Focus suggested earlier this year that people cool themselves off using “a fan, a towel, and a bowl of water” instead.

Indeed, it seems the Germans would rather commute naked than give in to the degeneracy of artificial cooling.

However, rising summer temperatures look set to test Tommy’s stiff upper lip and Fritz’s Teutonic stoicism. 

This summer saw historic high temperatures scorch the entire continent. Record highs were set in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, and several Scandinavian countries. At least 13 people died, and July went down as the hottest month ever recorded by the EU Earth Observation Network.

The Germans begged for relief. Sales of AC units –which had already jumped 15 percent in 2018 – spiked. AC installers had their phone lines flooded with calls, and German electronics retailers Saturn and MediaMarkt scrambled to fill orders. “We are advising customers, if they want to buy a fan, to be very quick, because we expect more heat,” warned a spokeswoman for the outlets. 


France and Austria saw a similar rise in demand, with French cities even erecting air-conditioned ‘cooling rooms’ in cities to give sweaty locals access to the reprieve of air conditioning. That’s a bold move from the French, who only artificially chill shopping malls and larger offices, despite their country usually getting a hotter summer than most of its neighbors to the east. Perhaps they fear that by making the workplace livable in summer they might have to do away with their sacred two-hour lunch breaks.

In the UK, the US-based National Sleep Foundation went as far as warning people against sleeping in their cars with the AC on. All across Europe, the parched public did what they could to beat the heat.

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Foreign media looked on with a mixture of amusement and concern. “What makes Europe’s heat wave so insufferable?” asked CNN: “No AC.”“Without the air-conditioner, it is hell,” wrote the Irish Times, its writers basking in the natural air conditioning offered by Ireland’s frigid climate.

In Western Europe, opposition to air conditioning isn’t all about physical resilience. There’s also bucketloads of green guilt. AC units are seen as power hogs (though the typical modern unit only adds around 100 euros to a household’s annual electricity bill) and, as demand rises, governments fret over the environmental damage caused by the refrigerant gases they use. While units are flung up across Asia with feckless abandon, arcane EU regulations mandate that systems in Europe are filled only with the least harmful refrigerants, and regularly inspected for leaks.

Germany’s Green Party –which enjoyed a modest bump in regional elections over the weekend– has ignored air conditioning as a method of cooling off. Instead, the party called over the summer for the construction of more green spaces, claiming that “trees, parks, green open spaces and paths” provide natural “cooling air-conditioning systems” for towns and cities.

All of this is fine to debate with cool heads in cool weather, but when the thermometer hits 42.6 degrees celsius (108.7 fahrenheit) in Saxony, Germans will likely crucify any politician suggesting they sit under a tree.

For all their cultural resistance to comfort and ecological hand-wringing, all it looks set to take is another sweltering summer for the Europeans to learn to stop worrying and love the chill.

By Graham Dockery, RT

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