Air conditioning as Wealth and Power: Lessons from Abu Dhabi for a heating world
Wet bulb conditions. I had never heard of it before, until the day it happened. Like most summer afternoons in Abu Dhabi, the Arabian Gulf gleamed turquoise under a sky white with humidity and dust. I had just come in from the balcony of my 9th floor flat, breathless, slick with sweat, after less than five minutes outside. I had never felt heat like it, heavy as a weighted blanket.
The news alert explained. Wet bulb conditions are when extreme temperatures and humidity conspire to prevent sweat from evaporating, keeping the human body from cooling itself. Stay outside in these conditions for more than a few hours and even the fittest among us will die. Even as I read the article, the clangs of construction workers building a tower next door echoed through my flat. As they did every day, the workers toiled hour on hour, heads wrapped in scarves against the sun, limbs and faces wet and shining.
Right now, days like this are largely confined to the places we’d expect to find them, deserts like Abu Dhabi and Arizona. However, these conditions are spreading. Last year, some places in the Arctic circle saw temperatures as high as 49C (120F). A heat dome in Canada killed hundreds. These extremities have been predicted and will only increase in frequency. In the next fifty years, more places will become like Abu Dhabi, and Abu Dhabi itself will become unliveable for anyone without an air-conditioned retreat.
Still, if the United Arab Emirates is any indication, we can know that life will go on. People adjust. Abu Dhabi, a city built on a wasteland of sand and salt, is home to millions of people due to these adaptations. The real concern is how equitable, how just, and how sustainable these adaptations will be. Abu Dhabi is itself a case study of what we should emulate, and what we must plan to avoid, as we create heat-adapted societies.
The history of the Gulf is one of ingenious adaptation to extreme heat. Drive out into the Rub al-Khali desert now, and you would encounter huts of camel herders built intentionally porous so wind can cool while the hut gives shade. This rudimentary strategy is astonishingly effective on all but the hottest of days. More sophisticated articulations of this principle are seen on traditional buildings, both in their intricate screen window covers and in the design of wind towers— bell-tower-like structures which, by allowing wind to pass through the top, pull hot air up and out and suck in a cool breeze into a building. Such strategies made small settlements possible, but bedouin so long ruled the Gulf partially due to another critical adaptation strategy: migration. In winter, many tribes would live in the desert interior, sustained by camels, dates, and trade. In summer, the heat drove them toward the sea. Life required travel and travel sustained life.
The ancient system worked well, but before air-conditioning (AC), it could not support large, settled populations. With the advent of AC, the desert became not only liveable, but downright pleasant. Now people shuttle from one cool, tile-clad warren to another, rarely exposed to the weather. Desert heat is an afterthought, a reason to cherish your iced coffee in one of the dozens of soaring, sunshine-filled malls.
The issue is that this life is only accessible for the rich. In the Gulf, air-conditioning is a form of wealth. Many of my friends who work low-wage jobs rarely access AC. Construction workers, like the ones toiling near my flat, are often expressly forbidden from entering malls while wearing their uniforms. Given that malls are the most common public spaces with available air conditioning, this essentially precludes them from finding a place to cool off. Even indoor workers are regularly exposed to desert heat. Most of them commute by bus and bus stops are invariably outside on hot stretches of pavement. As is evident by the number of buses careening through the city with all their windows open in the summer heat, many of them also have broken AC units.
In the UAE, air conditioning is also a form of power. During the height of COVID lockdowns, many employers stopped paying their employees while still expecting them to work. In one poignant example, a maid’s lost income resulted in her landlord turning off her flat’s air conditioning, forcing her to sleep in smothering, near-deadly heat. Other people who live in “workers camps” have reported being too hot to sleep in their overcrowded flats. With no choice but to live in company housing provided by their employers, they can do nothing but pray for autumn.
Not only is AC commodified and weaponised, it is also noxious. The greenhouse gases released by cooling technologies account for 7% of global warming. The effect is localised as well. Air conditioners, just like refrigerators, release heat as they cool. A city full of air conditioners going at full blast can increase the heat by up to one degree Celsius, perversely causing them to work harder to counteract the heat they create.
As parts of the world become increasingly arid and dangerously hot, some people will migrate away. But for those who face war or dire poverty in their home countries, or who lack the means to leave the UAE, migration will not be possible. For them, we must ensure that AC access is just. Ensuring this will require not only a dedicated effort to tackle climate change, but also a new policy subfield dedicated to guaranteeing that the most vulnerable people have equitable access to cool air. The technology which supports air conditioning must also be rehauled. With the advent of the more green and efficient AC units developed in response to the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Global Cooling Prize, and more innovative new technologies like the cooling panels developed by SkyCool, such solutions are on the horizon. To become ubiquitous, they will require international investment and political support. Similarly, instead of blindly emulating glass and steel towers from temperate regions, local architecture should take cues from the past and build structures which cool naturally. Even with all we are doing to mitigate climate impacts, many more wet bulb condition days will be in our future. We must prepare to protect the vulnerable and build cities adapted for the heat.
Madeleine Ary Hahne  is a Geography PhD Candidate studying religion and climate change. She is a Co-Founder of Visions of Soon and a DEPLOY/US Graduate Student Fellow.