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Cooling Poverty is on the Rise

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we're highlighting growing equity issues arising as the climate warms.
Abigail Bassett
Oct 11, 2023 9 min read
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This week, a new study in the Journal of Nature Sustainability underscores the rising "cooling gap" and an increase in cooling poverty, highlighting growing equity issues arising as the climate warms.

The study showed that “The poorest and most disadvantaged people, who contributed the least to global warming, are the ones bearing the most severe consequences of extreme heat because of their limited adaptive capacity” because of building materials, passive cooling infrastructures, social infrastructures, and indoor and outdoor heat protection. The study introduces a new idea of “systemic cooling poverty."

According to, which wrote about the study, “Cooling poverty can be defined as systemic because it develops in a context in which organizations, households, and individuals are exposed to the detrimental effects of increasing heat stress mainly because of inadequate infrastructures.'

According to a 2021 report by Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), regions such as South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa face the most significantly widening cooling gap. SEforALL has been tracking the cooling gap since 2013.

What is Cooling Poverty?

Cooling poverty is a concept that arises from the challenges faced by individuals and communities coping with rising temperatures and heat waves, especially in regions with precarious urban infrastructures and socioeconomic disparities.

Cooling poverty is further exacerbated by the rising global temperature, which in turn pushes the demand for air conditioners higher. Not everyone can afford these kinds of appliances worldwide, leaving the poorest to suffer in the heat, leading to cooling poverty. According to a working paper from Oxford, anywhere from 1.8 to 4.1 billion people need access to indoor cooling to avoid heat-related problems.

The Macro Impacts of Systemic Cooling Poverty

A global rising temperature is not only uncomfortable; it affects us all directly and indirectly.

For example, just last month, as temperatures continued to hover into the 100-degree Fahrenheit territory, kids returned to classrooms across the U.S despite a 2020 Government Accountability Office estimate that around 36,000 of nearly 100,000 schools are not equipped to deal with the extreme heat. Previous studies have shown that students are 12% more likely to fail in 90-degree heat versus a more moderate 72 degree outside temperature.

Cooling poverty also has implications for the racial gap in schools, as this New York Times piece points out. A 2018 study out of Harvard showed that “Without air conditioning, each 1°F increase in school year temperature reduces the amount learned that year by one percent.”

While the Biden administration has included half a billion dollars in grants for repairing and upgrading school HVAC systems through the Infrastructure Act, that's just a drop in the bucket, according to Scientific American.

Rising heat also has implications for the labor market and global economy. A 2014 study on workers in high-heat industries noted an "impairment of cognitive functions, including selective attention and reaction time, under heat stress conditions." This past summer, there were deaths around the world as workers faced record temperatures. As The New York Times noted, “Over the long term, the consequences of extreme heat will be tremendous. Studies estimate that extreme heat can cause trillions of dollars in losses to the global economy by reducing productivity, damaging crops, and increasing mortality, among other impacts.”

There are also the added individual risks caused by cooling poverty. To get cool, people may use obsolete, inefficient, and hazardous cooling appliances like old air conditioners or water tanks. These devices can not only pose health risks such as legionella disease but also facilitate the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like dengue and chikungunya​, according to that working paper out of Oxford.

The paper cites places like Rio de Janeiro's favelas, where 1.5 million people, primarily afro-descendants, live in informal settings. Electricity thefts and blackouts rise as people try to find ways to get air conditioning to work. In addition, those suffering from cooling poverty also face issues around indoor air quality, affecting their long-term health and quality of life.

What's Driving the Increase in Cooling Poverty?

Several factors drive the global rise in cooling poverty, but it's been rising primarily because of climate change. The problem has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing socioeconomic disparities.

As climate change and temperature increases (like those we saw this summer and will likely see into the winter months thanks to El Niño) become the norm, demand for cooling appliances will continue to surge.

According to Bloomberg, ten new units are sold every second, on average, and more than 2 billion people around the world are expected to buy some cooling appliance in the next few years. Energy use is predicted to triple by 2050 as a result. That, in turn, increases the global energy demand, which inevitably contributes to emissions and global warming.

That global energy demand is expected to outstrip heating demand by the end of the century. Since not everyone in developing nations can afford cooling solutions, it's safe to expect the cooling gap to expand. While a lack of heating had previously been included in energy poverty, the space has expanded to include a lack of cooling.

The rising cooling gap was also further entrenched due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed nearly 70 million people in 54 high-impact countries into extreme poverty, making access to cooling even more challenging, according to SEforALL. The pandemic has clearly shown the poverty impact on increased access to cooling risks, especially in countries most affected by extreme heat conditions​.

What Happens if the Cooling Gap Continues to Widen?

If unaddressed, cooling poverty could have broader societal and economic implications for the globe. For example, if a home can't remain cool or have air conditioning of some kind installed, it could affect its value, especially in places particularly prone to high temperatures (like much of the Southwest in the U.S.) In some developing nations, air conditioners are seen as a status symbol, making the push for lower-energy alternatives difficult.

However, ongoing research and initiatives, such as the Global Cooling Prize, are aimed at developing more energy-efficient and affordable cooling solutions, which could significantly alleviate cooling poverty and decrease the cooling gap worldwide.

The interplay between climate change, socioeconomic conditions, and global energy demands underscores cooling poverty's multifaceted and growing challenge. Various policymakers, researchers, and manufacturers are working towards innovative solutions to ensure that cooling, a fundamental need in a warming world, is accessible to all, but there's still a long way to go.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett