Sunday, November 10, 2019

Air-conditioning the outside—really

Qatar is both a country and a peninsula which juts out about 100 miles into the Persian Gulf. It is precisely this geography which makes it both one of the hottest and muggiest places on Earth. The average daily high in mid-summer is 108 degrees F (42 degrees C).

With temperatures now exceeding those averages on a regular basis and nighttime temperatures hovering in the 90s in summer, Qatar has begun working on making the outside cooler.

It had to come. As climate change continues to move temperatures up worldwide, those places that were already hot are getting hotter—and unlivable.

Workers on a U.S. military base in Qatar must now follow strict rest regimens so as not to endanger their well-being on hot days. The Washington Post reports:

The U.S. Air Force calls very hot days “black flag days” and limits exposure of troops stationed at al-Udeid Air Base. Personnel conducting patrols or aircraft maintenance work for 20 minutes, then rest for 40 minutes and drink two bottles of water an hour. People doing heavy work in the fire department or aircraft repair may work for only 10 minutes at a time, followed by 50 minutes of rest, according to a spokesman for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.

Cooling units along walkways and outdoor seating areas in Qatar's cities make it possible for people to stroll or relax in the evening without danger of overheating. Qatar is also engineering ways to cool entire open-air stadiums to make them bearable for spectators.

In my previous post I discussed how our ideas of progress are getting in the way of actual progress in human affairs. While Qatar may be making "progress" in cooling technology, I would not consider it a contribution to the overall progress of humankind. It is actually one more example of the limits we face.

In the path-breaking study Limits to Growth the authors explain how those limits will unfold. Many people mistakenly believe that LTG makes the claim the world society will "run out" of resources. The way the authors anticipate that humans will run up against limits will actually be more complex. As society works to counteract the effects of climate change and other challenges, it will spend increasing amounts on mitigation—in this case, cooling.

Since the amount of capital available to invest in restoring, repairing, maintaining and growing the current private and public infrastructure is finite, as the costs of mitigating the effects of climate change rise—for building seawalls, moving populations, dealing with climate refugees, repairing damage from severe weather, and of course, cooling people and livestock—there will be less capital available to finance actual expansion of the infrastructure and thus expansion of the economy.

We will be using more and more of the capital available for investment just to mitigate the effects of climate change; air, water, and soil pollution; plant and animal species decline; water and energy scarcity; and the myriad other negative effects of our way of life, so that there will be less and less left over to grow the economy. That's a limit to growth.

Then, keep in mind that as we continue to grow our overall physical infrastructure which means the entire physical plant of society including housing, commercial and industrial buildings, government buildings, agricultural infrastructure, transportation infrastructure and communications infrastructure, the amount of investment which goes into maintaining that infrastructure goes up every year. At some point that infrastructure along with all our efforts at mitigating the negative effects of climate change and the other challenges mentioned above will consume all investment income. That is the end of growth.

What is happening in Qatar is just one more step away from actual progress toward a sustainable society, one which might support a high quality of life but which cannot grow indefinitely. The irony, of course, is that little Qatar is among the top three exporters of liquefied natural gas in the world. The country is dependent on revenues from a product that when used as directed is contributing to the very warming that is making the country unlivable. (Qatar also exports significant amounts of oil.) And, of course, the energy Qatar is using to fuel its new outdoor cooling systems is increasing greenhouse gas emissions and thus contributing to the overall rise in global temperatures.

We have long since entered a vicious circle of mitigating problems with technology that causes more problems which must also be mitigated—and in a way that consumes more energy and thus releases more greenhouse gases. Our whole pattern of living needs to be rethought. Qatar is just one example of how world society is trying to avoid doing just that.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at

1 comment:

Sissyfuss said...

To air-condition the atmosphere, wasn't that the ice at the poles was for? The warming is just beginning to go exponential but the insanity of humankind is already there.