The Social (In)Justice of Thermostat Settings

San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area experienced an historic heatwave this weekend, with recorded temperatures in the city exceeding 100 degrees two days in a row. To give you some context, up until this week there had only been ten 100 degree or more days since 1904. That's only ten 100 degree or more days in 113 years. Because San Francisco so rarely gets hot, most houses do not have air conditioning. In the surrounding areas, temps average 10-20 degrees higher so some homes do have AC while others do not.

The thing is, air conditioning requires power. And so long as our energy comes from fossil fuels, running the AC burns more fossil fuels, which increases global warming, which results in hotter temperatures, which causes more people and businesses to run air-conditioners, which use more fossil fuels, which will make the temps even hotter....

Yesterday, someone was telling me how their friends keep their house at 60 degrees even when they're not home so that the cat will be comfortable, and I nearly cried. I stopped myself so that my friend wouldn't feel uncomfortable, but maybe I should have wept. Who knows? Maybe I should have pitched a fit and been the stereotypical "environmentalist."

I'm not opposed to air conditioning.  I totally understand that when the mercury exceeds a certain temperature, cooling becomes a necessity, not a luxury. The single biggest weather-related killer isn't hurricanes or tornadoes, it's heat. When the temperature exceeds a certain point, people die. Children, the elderly, and the infirm die quicker. As for the rest of us, even if our lives are not at risk, we still suffer.  So I am not opposed to air conditioning at all. If we had had AC in the house on Friday and Saturday, I would have used it.

But access to air conditioning depends on your economic situation. The wealthy can apparently cool an entire house to 60 degrees so that the cat is comfortable. Others make due with fans and lots of ice cold drinks, as my family did. And still others do not have access even to fans and refrigeration. All throughout the heat wave, I kept thinking about people on the streets without shelter. Concrete and asphalt absorb and radiate heat, raising the temps even higher. How did they survive? If some folks died, would the news even bother reporting it?

Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists alike, as well as others, affirm the reality of interdependency.  Interdependency means that the thermostat in your house (should you be fortunate enough to have one) is connected to the power plant which is connected to greenhouse gases which is connected to extreme weather in many places which is connected to the people sitting in the shelters and to the people sitting on the baking concrete sidewalks asking for money.  In other words, the temperature at which you decide to set the thermostat is not just a personal choice.  It affects others.  (There are other interdependent connections too, like who suffers to acquire and burn the fossil fuels that power your house.)  And whether or not you can pay your electric bill is not the only consideration of a responsible person.  

Climate change is a social justice issue.  Its effects impact the poor (who tend also to hold other marginalized identities) much more severely than the rich. The rich (and the middle-class) can shelter themselves from the impact of climate change... by more easily evacuating areas overcome by flood and wildfires, by more easily replacing possessions lost to flood and fire, by moving, by running the air-conditioning. And the rich (and middle-class) disproportionately engage in behaviors that accelerate climate change, making life even more miserable for the poor.

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