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Adapting to the heat of climate change by supplying more air conditioning may seem like a simple fix, but a new study suggests that adding more air conditioning in the wake of heatwaves is simply trading one climate issue with a new one, and curing some health issues while creating others.

While air conditioners potentially help avoid death and illness from heatwaves, the uptake in air conditioning use consequently creates more risk for deaths and illness due to the use of fossil fuel energy.

The researchers believe that the real solution to climate issues now and avoiding climate issues of the future is to adapt through clean, sustainable energy and solar power or wind, instead of relying on fossil fuels.

“We’re trading problems. Heat waves are increasing and increasing in intensity. We will have more cooling demand requiring more electricity,” Jonathan Patz, a senior author of the study and a professor of environmental studies and population health sciences, said. “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.”

But this adaptation to climate change won’t create climate issues in the far future. The researchers believe that these issues could arise within a few decades.

In particular, fine particulate matter, the ozone and increased use of fossil fuels through air conditioning are the causes as to why 13,000 people are forecast to die annually. 

Patz and a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison forecast that because of higher levels of fine particulate matter thousands of people will die as well as an additional 3,000 deaths annually due to the ozone in the East. Their forecast also noted that increased usage of air conditioning alone will be the cause 1,000 of those deaths annually because of the fossil fuels.

“What we found is that air pollution will get worse,” David Abel, UW-Madison graduate student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies’ Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, said. “There are consequences for adapting to future climate change.”

Though many people can reduce their carbon foot print by reducing their household use of air conditioning, Tracey Holloway, a professor of environmental studies, notes that the fossil fuel energy used to cool down buildings takes up 60 percent of the energy demand.

According to Holloway, these buildings are the “biggest energy sinks in the United States.”

Buildings are suggested to be a contributor to future climate change as well as added health problems from chemicals in the air from fossil fuels and natural atmospheric chemistry and chemicals induced by the warming Earth.

The team came to these conclusions by analyzing projections from five different models that led to a forecast of Earth only decades away from now.

“Air conditioning and the way we use energy is going to provide a feedback that will exacerbate air pollution as temperatures continue to get warmer,” Abel said.

Lowering ones individual air conditioning usage may lower a personal carbon footprint, but large efforts for clean energy can control the fate of clean air and air pollution.

If nothing changes, the researchers point out, it will only get worse.

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