Are Air Conditioners Becoming a Human Right?

Photo by Ava Sol on Unsplash
Dallas keeps getting hotter.
Angela Harmon couldn’t afford a new air conditioner, so when hers broke earlier this summer, she did what she could to stay cool in her Dallas home. During the day, the 52-year-old single mother of three would let the kids splash around in a small dollar-store pool. In the early mornings and evenings, they’d rest on her shaded porch.

After the coronavirus hit last March, Harmon was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leaving her unable to work. But as a member of South Dallas’ Cornerstone Baptist Church, she knew they had a program giving away air conditioners to people in need. Shortly after signing up, she could cool her home once more.

The church’s giveaway changed Harmon’s life “considerably.” As someone who's immunocompromised, she's been virtually homebound since receiving her cancer diagnosis.

“I only go out to receive treatments and pick my grandson up, and I'm back at the house. So I'm pretty limited on where I can go to stay cool,” she said. “That was just right on time that I was able to benefit from the program because I never thought I would be in the position where I would have to.”

Climate change is wreaking havoc on the nation and the rest of the world. This summer, temperatures have soared as high as 115 degrees in the Northwest at the same time wildfires are ramping up in the Southeast.

Here in North Texas, the heat will likely continue to hit low-income and communities of color the hardest. Yet without access to the necessary resources, some residents have little reprieve from a rapidly warming climate.

From 2011 to 2016, 535 people died from heat-related issues in Texas, according to a 2019 article published by the Austin American-Statesman. The report found the heat was especially unbearable in South Oak Cliff, leading to the deaths of nine people since 2010.

Poor Texans have little recourse against grueling summers, so seven years ago, Chris Simmons, the pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church, began working with an anonymous donor to provide free ACs to those in need. The program would typically deliver 125 units per summer, but this year, Simmons estimates it’ll top 350.

Cornerstone serves in a low-income community, and the program gives priority to seniors and people with disabilities, plus those living with children, Simmons said. On top of that, residents must live within 25 miles of downtown.

“I think [air conditioning] is, in these communities, a human right." – Pastor Chris Simmons

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Simmons frequently receives “heart-moving” emails from Dallas residents who need help. The demand has accelerated over the past week or so because of a spike in temperatures; lately, Simmons has been fielding 30 to 40 requests per day.

“It’s a lot of need out there. I mean it’s huge, legitimate need,” Simmons said, adding the bulk of the requests are from South Dallas, where the median income is less than $16,000.

“I think [air conditioning] is, in these communities, a human right,” he continued.

Rapidly warming temperatures are disproportionately harming low-income and communities of color in Dallas, said Courtney Cecale, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Texas. Air conditioning is becoming more essential because it’s a “clear, easy way to prevent death.”

Still, many other vulnerable populations continue to live without it, such as incarcerated Texans. Mother Jones reports that most of the state’s prisons lack air conditioning, and temperatures indoors can exceed 100 degrees.

It may be scorching now, but Texas will continue to get hotter, Cecale said. Ten to 15 years ago, the state experienced roughly 80 dangerous heat days a year, but it's now more like 100. Conservative estimates expect that number to climb to 130 by 2050.

Meanwhile, Dallas is hotter than nearby rural areas because its largely concrete, urban infrastructure traps heat, Cecale said. That’s made even worse by Texas’ high humidity.

“You’ve got all these different things working against us, specifically in Dallas,” she said. “And so you’ll find that it’s more dangerous for it to be 100 degrees in Dallas than it might be to be 100 degrees somewhere like Phoenix.”

Texas is expected to be 10 degrees hotter by the end of the century, Cecale said. On top of that, greater air stagnation will lead to “horrible” ozone days, potentially increasing the burden on the public health system.

Cecale said heat is becoming an “existential threat” for many people, including Texans without air conditioning. That also applies to those who work outdoors, such as farm laborers and landscapers.

Still, there are plenty of ways to help the region, she said. Planting more trees could lower temperatures by several degrees, for instance, and parks could be designed to incorporate more shade. Plus, the city could tweak certain existing programs, such as expanding the hours for its cooling stations.

Citing the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, Cecale said everyone deserves an adequate standard of living for their own health and well-being, and it only makes sense that air conditioning would be included.

“We have all of these different rules for things like: You have to have a heater in your house, you have to make sure that there isn’t carbon dioxide poisoning,” Cecale said. “Why wouldn’t this also be a factor?”