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Experts Worry Increasing Demand To Power ACs Will Make Global Warming Worse

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People who live in New England know they need heat for the winter. They traditionally worry less about cooling. Air conditioning is a luxury item. Now, as the climate changes and summer temperatures set records, air conditioning is not optional. Martha Bebinger from WBUR in Boston reports on people who entered a kind of lottery for AC.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: A white truck parks in front of a brick apartment complex where two lucky residents wait for their new ACs. Cesar Cortez calls to let the winners know he's arrived.

CESAR CORTEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BEBINGER: Cortez works for Chelsea, a city just outside of Boston with few trees. Temperatures are routinely hotter here than in Boston's leafier communities. Josefa Mendez stations her new rolling unit beneath a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. She says the saint helped deliver the air conditioner.

JOSEFA MENDEZ: (Through interpreter) I have my virgin there that I pray to every day. My son filled out the application because I don't know how to read or write. So I told him, mijo, you'll fill out the application because, God willing, we can win the air conditioner.

BEBINGER: Mendez has asthma and other ailments that get worse when it's hot. She lost work as a housekeeper during the pandemic and is two months late on her rent.

MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BEBINGER: She says you can tell these air conditioners look expensive, like something people with jobs can buy but people like her can't easily afford. Chelsea is a largely low-income city of immigrants, and it received more than 700 applications for 73 air conditioning units provided by a Boston nonprofit. The city chose winners based on income, illness and family size. Alex Train is the director of housing and community development. He says a longer term solution may be to require that builders and landlords provide air conditioning, as they must do with heat.

ALEX TRAIN: Historically, cooling hasn't kind of risen to the top as a priority. Now, given the increase in the number of days that are over 95 degrees, as well as just the general increase in average summertime temperatures, cooling is of paramount priority.

BEBINGER: Some health care providers are also trying to figure out how to make sure patients with lung ailments, high blood pressure, heart problems and some mental health conditions stay cool as temperatures rise. Dr. Aaron Bernstein is at Boston Children's Hospital.

AARON BERNSTEIN: We have decades of research that show that air conditioning is critical for survival for people at risk during heat waves. And yet insurers don't cover it because they see it as not medically necessary.

BEBINGER: This is all part of a larger national debate about who should provide cooling aid and how. Heat waves this summer in the Pacific Northwest and Canada have already killed more than 200 residents. A 2020 study says as many as 12,000 premature deaths in the U.S. every year could be caused by hot weather.

GREG WELLENIUS: Deaths, while very important, is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the health impacts.

BEBINGER: Greg Wellenius studies heat-related deaths at the Boston University School of Public Health.

WELLENIUS: There's mounting evidence that more people go to the emergency room on days of high heat.

BEBINGER: But boosting use of air conditioning is controversial. Some public health and environmental leaders worry that increasing demand for electricity to power ACs will just make global warming worse. Wellenius appreciates that concern.

WELLENIUS: On the other hand, it's hard for me to imagine how we justify withholding potentially life-saving treatment from people that are at high risk of heat-related illness.

BEBINGER: Wellenius says the solution is more efficient air conditioning. Many lower income residents have another worry - how to afford a higher utility bill. Nineteen states use federal home energy aid for cooling, but Massachusetts and the remaining states only use those funds for heating assistance. The ACs Chelsea is giving away come with a $300 utility assistance check, something the city hopes to continue in summers to come.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.