This week I came across a fascinating working paper on air conditioning in schools by Joshua Goodman, Michael Hurwitz, Jisung Park, and Jonathan Smith. Using data from ten million students, the authors find a relationship between hotter school instruction days and lower PSAT scores. They also find that air conditioning offsets this problem, but students of color in lower income school districts are less likely to attend schools with adequate air conditioning, making them more vulnerable to the effects of hot weather.
Climate change is a massive global problem, and the heat is a deeply sociological problem, highlighting who has the means or the social ties to survive dangerous heat waves. For much of our history, however, air conditioning has been understood as a luxury good, from wealthy citizens in ancient Rome to cinemas in the first half of the twentieth century. Classic air conditioning ads make the point:
This is a key problem for making social policy in a changing world. If global temperatures are rising, at what point does adequate air conditioning become essential for a school to serve students? At what point is it mandatory to provide AC for the safety of residents, just like landlords have to provide heat? If a school has to undergo budget cuts today, I would bet that most politicians or administrators wouldn’t think to fix the air conditioning first. The estimates from Goodman and coauthors suggest that doing so could offset the cost, though, boosting learning to the tune of thousands of dollars in future earnings for students, all without a curriculum overhaul.
Making such improvements requires cultural changes as well as policy changes. We would need to shift our understanding of what air conditioning means and what it provides: security, rather than luxury. It also means we can’t always focus social policy as something that provides just the bare minimum, we also have to think about what it means to provide for a thriving society, rather than one that just squeaks by. In an era of climate change, it might be time to rethink the old cliché, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”