NYT's Hot Air: Air Conditioning Vital for Prisoners, Bad for Planet?

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Air conditioning: Great for prisoners, bad for the environment? That’s the unwitting and contradictory takeaway from Tuesday’s New York Times.

The lack of air conditioning in some Southern prisons led the National section. Alan Blinder fretted: “In U.S.’s ‘Sweatbox’ Jails, a Constitutional Clash Over Air-Conditioning.” But the same day's Science section asked rhetorically: "...can I use my air-conditioner guilt free?" and then responded with a sniff: "Not quite," citing myriad environmental problems.

The air inside the Jefferson Davis Parish jail was hot and musty. Prisoners, often awakened by the morning heat, hoped for cooling rain after nightfall. And ice, one inmate recalled, brought fleeting relief in the cell she called a “sweatbox.”

Even though summer temperatures routinely roar past 100 degrees here, the jail, like scores of other jails and prisons across the country, has no air-conditioning.

“It’s hot,” Heidi Bourque, who was locked up this month for theft, said of the jail as she sat in her home, where the glowing red digits of the living room thermostat showed the temperature as a chilling 62. “It’s miserable.”

Her complaints are unlikely to move local residents, who approved funding to build a new jail after local leaders promised two years ago that it would not pamper inmates with air-conditioning. But they speak to a broader debate about the threshold for when extreme temperatures become cruel and unusual punishment.

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In places like Louisiana and Texas, sweltering states where elected officials cherish tough-on-crime credentials, it is politically poisonous to be perceived as coddling prisoners. And many officials simply say that temperatures are not anywhere near as dire as prisoners and their lawyers claim.

“For the first 20 years of my life, I lived in a house with no air-conditioning,” said Jim Willett, the director of the Texas Prison Museum and a former warden at the state’s death house. “I just have a hard time sympathizing with anybody over air-conditioning.”

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In Louisiana, the placement of a city or parish border can dictate the relative comfort of a night in a local lockup. Pretrial inmates here in Jefferson Davis Parish, a rural area of about 31,000 people where the heat index on a recent afternoon hit 106 degrees, spend their days and nights in the small jail on the third floor of the courthouse. There are fans, but no air-conditioning.

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Inmates, lawyers and doctors described similar conditions inside other jails across the South, and some said that temperatures endangered the lives of prisoners with health problems.

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And as the court battles continue, both sides question why the issue has become such a protracted, expensive battle.

But while the Times, with one liberal hand, tries to bring blessed relief to prisoners, with the other it takes that air-conditioned luxury away from everyone else in the name of saving the planet. An article in the Science section Tuesday, “The Air Conditioning Switch” by Tatiana Schlossberg has the subhead: “A guide to the coming changes in what keeps us cool, with the environment in mind.” (The questions are in italics; Schlossberg’s answers follow in plain text.)

We may be in the clear when it comes to heat domes, but it’s still really hot. More than half of the country has had temperatures in the 90s in the last week, prompting many people to find relief in the cool, crisp breeze of an air-conditioner.

But in the next few years, the way air-conditioners work could change. Last month, representatives from nearly 200 countries worked on a new environment agreement to regulate the use of HFCs, or hydrofluorocarbons. These chemical compounds are responsible for keeping you cool on hot summer days, in air-conditioners and refrigerators. And even though you might not have heard of them, environmentalists, government officials and scientists say an agreement to limit HFCs represents a significant step in the fight to stave off the worst effects of global warming.

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Is my air-conditioner causing global warming?

It’s complicated.

HFCs represent a small portion of total greenhouse gas emissions, but they trap thousands of times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

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So can I use my air-conditioner guilt free?

Not quite. Air-conditioning presents other problems: As of 2009, nearly 90 percent of American homes have air-conditioners, which account for about 6 percent of all the country’s residential energy use. All that air-conditioning releases about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

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But it’s so hot. Will I have to give up my air-conditioning?

No, although some experts say that there may be a time in the future when the climate in some places will be so hot that air-conditioning won’t be able to maintain comfortable temperatures.

Times environmental reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal has been on a crusade to get rid of air conditioning. A 2012 article included this text box summary “Air-conditioning makes us feel better, but it's hurting the planet." A year before, she advised China and India to just sweat it out and forgo Western-style air conditioning to save the planet: “As more people in more countries come to rely on air-conditioning, the idea of thermal comfort may need to be rethought to curb the growth in greenhouse gas emissions. Ten years ago, when I lived in Beijing, air-conditioning was a rare luxury. On a visit there this month, I saw air-conditioners blasting even in rural restaurants. If hundreds of millions people in China and India expect to be cooled to our frigid standard of 71.6 degrees all the time, the environmental impact might be far less comfortable.”