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Climate change causes another issue: an increased need for air conditioners


As the climate changes, places where home air conditioning used to be rare are seeing a need for artificial cooling. It's a new expense that is hard for people in low-income housing. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: On a summer day with temperatures pushing into the 90s, Heather Ronnie's (ph) two kids eagerly lined up for the ice cream truck.

HEATHER RONNIE: We've actually seen it driving down the road, and they were freaking out.

BOLTON: They're in Columbia Falls, Mont., about 20 miles southwest of Glacier National Park. In August, several Montana cities set daily high temperature records. It was the hottest month on record in parts of Washington and Oregon too - this after hundreds in the region died from heat-related causes in 2021 and 2022. Most died in homes without air conditioning. This summer, Ronnie had to take her 3-year-old son to the emergency room because it was so hot in their apartment.

RONNIE: All of a sudden he's throwing up and very tired. I took him in immediately.

BOLTON: Nationwide, more than half a million public and low-income housing units like Ronnie's don't have AC. The Pew Research Center's Drew DeSilver says a lot of them are in the Rockies or Pacific Northwest.

DREW DESILVER: So a lot of those places, they didn't really need air conditioning, and so a lot of homes just didn't come with air conditioning.

BOLTON: Lots of low-income people use vouchers from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, to help pay their rent. But while HUD requires housing funds to provide heat, it doesn't have dedicated funding to install AC in low-income housing. Requiring AC would be challenging. HUD declined to make someone available for an interview on the topic but has said it's contemplating a cooling requirement. Public housing infrastructure is already crumbling, with various estimates putting the maintenance backlog at roughly $80 billion. Bridgett Simmons is with the National Housing Law Project.

BRIDGETT SIMMONS: So that's why this concern about financially how does it get done is a big concern.

BOLTON: Lots of states have assistance programs to help people with low incomes pay their heating bills. But that kind of help for cooling is rare. And it's not just a matter of comfort. Low-income and rural Americans are more likely to have health conditions that make them susceptible to heat, says Dr. Lori Byron with the group Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate.

LORI BYRON: People with multiple medical problems, with chronic disease, with diabetes - they are more likely to die in a heat wave, especially if they don't have access to cool air.

BOLTON: Analysis from the place with the most heat-related deaths in America, the Phoenix metro area, found that the majority of people who died indoors from heat last summer were in dwellings without working air conditioning. Authorities in Arizona have been setting up public cooling centers to reduce heat-related deaths. Byron says they're needed here in Montana now, too.

BYRON: Cooling centers - there aren't really any set up yet.

BOLTON: Inside Heather Ronnie's apartment in Columbia Falls, her kids are devouring their ice cream treats. Ronnie, who works as a housekeeper, says she was able to afford a swamp cooler, which cools the air through evaporation. It hasn't helped much. She wanted to buy a cheap window air conditioner, but those aren't allowed.

RONNIE: I thought it was ridiculous because we all have children here, and it is like a hot box in here.

BOLTON: She says if she got help to install AC, she'd be happy to cover the extra utilities. She says that would surely be cheaper than another ER visit for her youngest child.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Columbia Falls, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Aaron Bolton
Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.