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Why the warming planet and increased air conditioning use could cause future deaths

Summer temperatures have reached scorching highs over the past several decades, and for many, that likely means air conditioners are working overtime.

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According to new research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, increased use of air conditioners may only be making a bad problem even worse.

By mid-century, scientists forecast an additional 13,000 human deaths annually caused by high levels of fine particulate matter in the summer and another 3,000 caused by ozone in the Eastern United States. About 1,000 of those extra deaths each year would be a result of increased fossil fuel-powered air conditioning and the resulting air pollution.

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“Results show that without intervention, approximately 5%–9% of exacerbated air-pollution-related mortality will be due to increases in power sector emissions from heat-driven building electricity demand,” authors wrote in the report, which was recently published in the Public Library of Science Medicine.

In the U.S., buildings are responsible for more than 60 percent of power demand in the Eastern region of the nation, according to the study, which involved assessing computer models using historical and future climate data.

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Here’s how senior author Jonathan Patz explained how exactly cooling the warm air with compromising fossil fuels can be damaging in the University of Wisconsin-Madison news release:

Heat waves are increasing and increasing in intensity. We will have more cooling demand requiring more electricity. But if our nation continues to rely on coal-fired power plants for some of our electricity, each time we turn on the air conditioning we’ll be fouling the air, causing more sickness and even deaths.”

Burning fossil fuels, according to scientists, leads to increased volumes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases polluting and warming the air.

While heating is typically powered by natural gas, air conditioners are electrical, and that electricity is usually generated at coal-fired power plants.

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“You have to burn a lot of coal to keep me cool,” Oak Ridge National Laboratory researcher T.J Blasing, who was not involved in the study, told Live Science.

And though carbon emissions attributed to air conditioning are not as significant as the impact of  coal-fired power plant emissions and atmospheric chemistry, “on a regional basis the effects are expected to be greater, and overall the net result, though small, will be more carbon emissions,” according to Live Science.

Patz, lead author David Abel and their team believe there’s a dire need for more energy-efficient air conditioning equipment and more sustainable sources of energy, such as wind and solar power.

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“That is something we can control that will help both climate change and future air pollution. If we change nothing, both are going to get worse,” Abel said. 

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