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It’s getting hot in here: the case for cooling Bowdoin

September 15, 2023

This piece represents the opinion of the author .
Alfonso Garcia

Amid the usual chaos of move-in and last-minute class registrations, many Bowdoin students found themselves dealing with an unexpected challenge last week: a heat wave that sent temperatures soaring, particularly in non-air conditioned campus housing.

During the first week of classes, humidity-adjusted temperatures climbed into the 90s, leaving numerous students, including me, living in rooms much hotter than anticipated. My room, located in a college house attic, recorded a peak of 96 degrees and stayed at or above 84 degrees for six days. Many of my friends and classmates reported similar or higher temperatures in their own dorms, lack of sleep and symptoms of dehydration.

According to the National Weather Service, sustained exposure to temperatures exceeding 80 degrees can trigger adverse health effects, while temperatures above 90 degrees can lead to severe conditions like heat stroke. Regrettably, in the face of these sweltering conditions, Bowdoin provided no official guidance or support to students facing potential health risks.

Although it’s unclear if this particular heat wave can be attributed to climate change, it should serve as a stark reminder that a warming planet will inevitably bring higher temperatures to Bowdoin: a challenge for which we appear to be ill-prepared. Air conditioned housing is available only to students with accommodations, and access requires medical justification. With no air conditioning and no alternative housing, students are left with few options.

Curious about Bowdoin’s contingency plans for heat emergencies, I turned to our climate action plan. Bowdoin’s goal is to eventually connect campus buildings to a geothermal exchange system, which would offer both heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. However, despite this possible solution, there is still no established timeline for installing air conditioning in residential buildings. There also seems to be a conspicuous absence of any strategy to address heat-related emergencies. Pomona College, where my sister goes to school, sets up cots in air conditioned spaces every time they have a heat wave, and other institutions up and down the West Coast have adopted similar measures. The question stands: Would Bowdoin be prepared to take similar measures?

Bowdoin has a responsibility to ensure the safety and comfort of its students within reason. One option would be outfitting each campus building with a functioning HVAC system, an energy efficient mechanism for cooling. However, given the age of most dorms at Bowdoin, this seems overly invasive and expensive. Bowdoin could also provide cool spaces for students to spend the night in, but this is not a permanent (or even semi-permanent) solution. A third option would be to install window air conditioning units. While they may not offer the most energy-efficient cooling solutions, their deployment during emergency situations could better safeguard student well-being. They wouldn’t require extensive renovations to campus structures and are low-cost compared to installing HVAC systems—typically ranging from $0.14 to $0.25 per unit per hour. Considering the College’s willingness to invest in new technology and infrastructure and the substantial size of the endowment, this expenditure seems more than reasonable. During a brief heat wave, the expenses incurred by cooling would be negligible when compared to other, less critical expenditures.

We cannot afford to wait for the perfect solution. Bowdoin must act now to prevent heat-related health crises, rather than reacting when they are already upon us. While we continue to work on long-term, sustainable approaches to cooling, we must develop interim measures to protect student, faculty and staff well-being. The implementation of a comprehensive cooling plan should be a priority of our sustainability efforts, not a separate (and easily forgotten) detail. Climate change will affect every part of life on our planet, and it will not wait for us to be ready for its effects.

Bowdoin students rightfully expect a safe and comfortable learning environment—and we can continue to have one—but only if the administration takes proactive steps to adapt to the changing climate.

June Hartman is a member of the Class of 2026.


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