A struggle over air conditioning in British Columbia is highlighting the need to protect tenants as temperatures soar around the world. Last week, landlords in the province warned renters that installing air conditioning units could get them kicked out of their homes and discouraged tenants from installing equipment. Some landlords argue electrical systems in older buildings can’t handle the demand, and others worry about damage leaking window units might cause to buildings. Tenants worry about suffering, even dying, during sweltering heat. It is the tenants’ worries that should take precedence here — AC ought to be universally accessible, and it ought to be illegal to prevent anyone from using it in their homes.
It looks like July 2023 will be the hottest month on record as historic temperature highs popped up around the world. July 3 was the hottest global temperature average day ever at 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit (17 Celsius). The temperature surge puts 2023 in the running for hottest year on record. Cities around the world used to heat are getting hotter, and cities unused to heat are having to deal with the new, hotter normal. That includes Vancouver, BC.
In 2021, a heat dome drove temperatures sky high in the province in June, rising above 40 degrees Celsius. The heat dome led to 619 heat-related deaths, 98 percent of which occurred indoors, according to a report to the chief coroner of British Columbia. The report recommended three “key areas to reduce heat-related deaths,” including a focus on populations at risk. In 2023, the province provided funding to install air conditioning units “for people who have low incomes and are medically vulnerable to heat.” They aim to see eight thousand units installed in the next three years. As the provinces’ health minister, Adrian Dix, noted in June, “It is anticipated that at least 50 per cent of air conditioning units will be installed in apartments or multiunit dwellings with a balance in single-family dwellings.” BC has one of the lowest levels of AC access among the provinces.
Protecting people from high temperatures is an old struggle, but it’s becoming a bigger one as climate change produces hotter weather. Across the country, 36 percent of Canadians do not have access to AC, and those without are more likely to be poorer — and renters. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHCR) observes that “extreme heat waves have and will continue to disproportionately impact groups protected under Ontario’s Human Rights Code.”
The OHRC also notes that:
At most risk are people with disabilities, older people, and low-income, Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities that have little or no access to air conditioning and are more likely to live in areas with fewer parks and shaded outdoor areas. People experiencing homelessness also face increased risks of exposure-related illnesses associated with the rise in temperature. This is especially true in urban areas where heat is more extreme.
The commission further points out that there is a “concerning trend of housing providers denying tenants’ ability to install air conditioning units and threatening rent increases or eviction, or both, if they do so.”
Manitoba is facing a challenge similar to BC’s and residents in the province and housing advocates are now fighting for changes to the building code that would require units to be installed in buildings. Predictably, landlords and their associations are complaining of the high cost of retrofitting older buildings. And yet the alternative, suffering and death, particularly for those who can’t at least afford portable units, is monstrous and unworthy of consideration.
Writing in the Globe and Mail, Tu Thanh Ha and Kathryn Blaze Baum report that building codes across the country aren’t keeping pace with climate change. The lag is leading to suffering and rising mortality rates, particularly among at-risk groups who face structural oppression and marginalization. Adequate cooling systems ought to be mandatory in not just every new building, but every old building too.
While AC can pose a climate change risk — a vicious cycle of rising temperatures requiring solutions that contribute to rising temperatures — there are short-, medium-, and long-term tactics and strategies to mitigate heat that don’t require traditional AC units. All of these strategies should be implemented. However, for many in the short term, old-school AC might be the only option they have, and a literal life saver. Those people should not be sacrificed while we figure out how to most effectively battle climate change — assuming we ever figure it out.
Writing in Jacobin in 2018, Leigh Phillips argued that a right to AC would mean “the right should be to have free or cheap, reliable access to the thermal conditions optimal for human metabolism (air temperatures of between 18 degrees C and 24 degrees C, according to the World Health Organization)” and that “new buildings must come with AC as part of any ‘Green New Deal.’” We are now seeing, in our own backyard, how correct he was. This is no longer an abstraction or simply the plight of people in remote areas of the world, whose suffering we may be oblivious to.
As Phillips highlights, opposition to AC “is just another form of austerity politics.” And that’s the last thing we need right now — particularly given that in the six years since Phillips wrote, immiseration of working-class and vulnerable populations has grown by leaps and bounds.
We can mitigate the climate-deleterious effect of active cooling systems by developing new technologies, using passive systems wherever possible, and decarbonizing as much of the economy as possible (for instance, electricity generation). Therein is the key to the matter. To the extent that we’re unwilling to enact industrial- and state-scale decarbonization via policy, and to the extent that we focus instead on individual “creature comforts” — like having AC to prevent death from overheating — we are failing to see the big picture. The climate change struggle must be focused first and foremost on state and industrial shifts.