IIf you’ve spent this summer in the US, no matter where you’ve been, chances are you’ve felt some pretty extreme heat. Last July marked the third hottest July in the 128-year temperature record maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, since 1936 (the hottest) and 2012. heat waves swept the country, eight states experienced July temperatures that were in the top five warmest, including Texas, which had its hottest July on record.
But 2022 is less of an anomaly and more of just another rung on the ladder of rising temperatures driven by global climate change. To adapt, people in the US are relying more on home cooling systems, which provide relief but at great financial and environmental cost. Here are five charts that illustrate the country’s paradoxical dependence on air conditioning.
1. Almost everyone cools their home these days
In the past, the US had among the highest rates of household air conditioning use in the world. And it continues to grow. Air conditioning in US homes has spread from 77% of households in 2001 to 88% in 2020, making it nearly everywhere, according to survey data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Most of the cooling systems are part of the home, such as central air conditioners or central heat pumps, as the diagram below shows. But adoption varies by age of construction: 83 percent of homes built before 1950 have air conditioning, compared to 93 percent of homes built in 2010.
There are also regional differences. The holdovers tend to be along the historically temperate Pacific coast, where only about half of homes have air conditioning. But even in this climatic region, where rolling, multi-day heat waves become commonplace, things change with newer construction: 66% of homes built there in 2010 had air conditioning, compared to 39% of homes built before 1950.
2. Air-conditioned Americans like their homes to be cool
American households are much more likely to have air conditioning than theirs European colleagues partly because cool air has always been a necessity in some regions of the US, such as the humid South and the desert Southwest. In countries like France, United Kingdomand Germany, less than 5% of homes in each country have air conditioning, according to a 2018 report. International Energy Agency— even despite the intense heat waves that have occurred recently burned these countries to ashes.
But Americans don’t just have more access to residential air conditioners. They also tend to blow it, including when they’re not at home. According to a TIME analysis of Statistics for 2015 from EIA, the most recent data available, the average temperature was set at 74°F when no one was home. That average temperature dropped close to 70°F when someone was home and at night. The US Department of Energy has suggested earlier that summer thermostats be set at 78°F during home hours and 82°F at night, but later clarified that the management it was less about putting a hard number and more about illustrating that it’s more energy efficient to raise the temperature by about 4°F at night and 7°F when you’re away from home.
But a closer look at the EIA data suggests that Americans aren’t everywhere heeding that advice. People with individual air conditioners, such as window units and portable systems, tend to change their temperature settings depending on the time of day and whether someone is home. Those with central air conditioners, on the other hand, are more likely to set one temperature and leave it there most of the time.
There are several problems with running the air conditioner so often, so loudly, and so unnecessarily. On the one hand, this increases demand on the electricity grid, which can cause outages; The Texas utility asked residents in July to turn off air conditioning and other major appliances amid peak record demand. Which is worse, AC units contribute to global warming by releasing heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As AC units reach the end of their life, hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, in the coolant can escape, which is why some countries have begun gradually remove them before the Environmental Protection Agency announced that he would last year. Additionally, AC generators that are powered by utility companies indirectly increase carbon dioxide emissions because these utilities typically rely on fossil fuels to generate electricity.
3. But Americans struggle to pay for it
Where there is cool relief, there is financial pain. AC power is not cheap and is outright unaffordable for many. In 2020, 34 million American households (27%) reported doing so cannot meet their energy needs at some point that year, according to the EIA. Among them, 20% have reduced the amount of food or medicine they buy to pay their energy bills, and 10% have left their home at an unsafe temperature due to cost concerns. In addition, 10% received a disconnection notice from their utility company, although this may be a lower percentage than in other years as a number of states have issued temporary pandemic-related shutdown moratoriums.
Households felt difficulties even before this summer due to more expensive natural gas, which power plants should operate. Government statistics for June show the average price of household electricity was 15.42¢ per kilowatt-hour that month, up from 13.85¢ a year earlier, an 11% increase. But in some regions of the US, prices have increased by more than 20% during that time, as the chart below shows.
Lagging government statistics do not fully capture the issue of affordability. But like Bloomberg Businessweek reports, more than 20 million American households (roughly one in six) are behind on their utility bills, according to the National Association of Energy Assistance Directors (NEADA), an organization that represents state governments in securing federal funding for energy assistance programs . What’s more, NEADA reports that the average cost of summer cooling between June and September was about $450 last year and is expected to be about $600 this year.
4. Defenses are scattered and temporary
The federal government provides energy assistance funding to states through LIHEAP, short for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The Biden administration more than doubled the program’s earmarked funding from $3.8 billion for 2022 to $8.3 billion through a provision in the American Rescue Plan that allows families to pay overdue bills as well as current bills. The extra money runs out on Sept. 30, 2022, and funding will be cut to about $4 billion next year unless Congress increases it.
Every state except Florida and Hawaii prohibits utility shutdowns for medically vulnerable residents who fall behind on payments. Some states also have specific requirements for households with infants and the elderly. But wide utility shutdown protections when the weather gets too hot or too cold are uneven across the country. According to LIHEAP data, 41 states and Washington, D.C. have complete protection against utility outages during extremely cold weather, but only 16 states and Washington, D.C. have similar general protection for extremely hot weather.
According to Mark Wolf, executive director of NEADA, the lack of protection is not the source of the outage problem (availability is), nor is protection the ultimate solution for struggling customers (because the bill doesn’t go away and customers can lose power immediately after a heat wave and then not to recover it before the next one hits, he says). But in extremely hot weather, which can cause and exacerbate serious health problemssuch protections can be life-saving.
“States decide how to distribute the funds throughout the year,” Wolff says. “And until recently, states used about 85% of the money they receive for heating. The problem is that we only have enough money to reach one in six eligible households, and on top of that we don’t have enough to help with heating and cooling bills.”
5. Change is happening, but slowly
The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act offers financial incentives such as tax credits of lower income households making their homes better insulated and more energy efficient. This is a step in the right direction to optimize cooling in an ever-warming world. But Wolfe says those incentives may not reach lower- and middle-class households, who likely can’t afford the upfront costs.
As the chart below shows, utility costs have increased for everyone, but those with the lowest incomes are feeling it the most, as they spend a much larger share of their income to keep the power on. Utilities usually offer specialized payment plans, but they usually work best when residents have long payment periods for a particularly expensive season. Increasingly, however, high energy bills come in both the winter and summer months, leaving customers with less room to breathe.
“As we think about adapting to rising temperatures, we think a lot about infrastructure like seawalls and train tracks that cost hundreds of billions of dollars,” Wolff says. “The other part is how do we help protect families from rising temperatures?”
More must-see stories from TIME