Most Hong Kong residents can’t wait to turn on their air conditioners when they get home, and enjoy the blissful coolness of a shopping center during the city’s hot summers. But a retired 72-year-old civil servant makes it his life’s mission to spread an unpopular message: It’s time to stop.
Lam Chiu-ying, director of the Hong Kong Observatory from 2003 to 2009, didn’t think of forcing someone to turn off the air conditioner despite his social media posts promoting USB-charged electric fans as an alternative. However, many commentators scoff at his attempts to cut air conditioning use whenever he talks about the dangers of climate change.
The former weatherman is often called the “no air conditioner icon.”
I didn’t turn on the air conditioner [for myself] “For something like 10 years,” Lamm said, although he admitted that at times he was an exception when his granddaughter visited him.
Lam’s position is seen by some as far-fetched and extreme, with people on online forums calling him an environmental terrorist, and others telling him to visit one of the city’s many notorious split flats before speaking out.
With Hong Kong experiencing its hottest July on record last month, they wondered if he really cared about renters with such cramped and ethnic conditions.
Lam first visited divided flats about two or three years ago when he was working with an NGO, the Young Women’s Christian Association of Hong Kong, on a project aimed at reducing electricity use so tenants could save on bills.
“I am a meteorologist, which is why I have been thinking of ways [to make a room cooler] linked to air flow. During this process, I learned about the situation at the grassroots level,” Lam said. “I think they are more and more victims of climate change: that’s why I want more people to pay attention to their situation.”
“Many people have air conditioners in their homes, but [residents of subdivided flats] You don’t really want to use electricity. At the very least, I wanted to find ways to reduce electricity consumption even when the air conditioner is on, or to help them reduce their air conditioning use.”
Lam visited two divided apartments during an interview with HKFP on a sticky summer day in August, backpacking full of USB charging fans and clutching a cooler rug bag. Wearing a white shirt and dark pants, sweat didn’t seem to bother him at all.
“It’s not dirty, it’s just a natural defense by your body, so I can’t understand why people consider sweat unhealthy,” Lam later said, adding that he could go days without washing his shirts.
Retired driver Wong Kwok-chong was sweating, after welcoming Lam into his home, one of the many cramped apartments in Sham Shui Po.
The 68-year-old, who lives alone with personal items stacked around a simple small apartment, said he often turns on the air conditioner and fan at the same time. Once the room is cool enough, he turns off the fan. At midnight, Wong turns off the air conditioner and turns on the fan again.
According to the Department of Electrical and Mechanical Services, using a fan at all times to help the air conditioner reach the set temperature will actually use less energy, Lam said.
The former observatory director promotes the use of USB-charged fans as an alternative to air conditioning, even drawing a graphic showing how using three fans in a room can improve airflow.
But not everyone buys his argument.
Mr and Mrs Chan, a married couple in their 90s, live in another divided apartment in Sham Shui Po with their 67-year-old daughter, who came from mainland China to take care of them.
When Lamm and HKFP arrived at their apartment on the same August afternoon, the couple had been blowing the air conditioner all day. But the room was still stuffy, and 90-year-old Mrs. Chan complained of the heat.
The only big window in their apartment was shut off to prevent rodents and insects from crawling in, and she said they had no choice but to keep the air conditioner on constantly in the summer.
With the window facing the courtyard, there is no natural light.
Lamm pulled a USB-charged fan out of his bag and tried to show the couple where to put it to make the temperature more bearable.
Ms. Chan said she already has a big electric fan. Her husband said they don’t use the mini fan because they have the air conditioner.
Lahm was not upset by the couple’s refusal. “Don’t worry,” he said, “let’s say you’re doing a good deed by giving it to someone else.”
Understandably, saving the planet is not a priority for the couple. Their current subdivided housing costs them more than HK$5,000 in monthly rent, bills and Chance’s dream of getting a government-subsidized apartment. Their application for public rental housing is one out of 242,600, while the average waiting time for applicants is more than six years.
“[People] “Using air conditioners and generating carbon dioxide – that’s the big picture,” Lam said after the two visits.
“We also have to deal with the smaller picture, where grassroots people are not likely to live in such hot weather conditions. Turning on the air conditioners to solve their problems is what needs to be done, and it is inevitable.”
And as a firm believer in climate justice, Lam said it was up to “people in the middle class or higher” to take action.
“I don’t agree with the argument that people are thinking ‘no matter what people do, they won’t beat the actions of big malls,'” he said. “Requiring everyone to do something does not mean we won’t ask for it.” [big corporations] to take action.”
“There is a saying in Chinese: Never fail to do good, no matter how trivial the act.”
Many people of L age are only happy to enjoy their retirement. However, his personal initiative to help save the planet is just getting started.
“We live on earth with other people,” he said, “and we should always have the welfare of others in our hearts.”
“I am a meteorologist, I know very well the science behind everything. I can understand what the future will look like, and I know a lot, [so] I simply can’t close my eyes and pretend not to see.”
Not only do air conditioners use more electricity than fans, but they can also release harmful chemicals into the environment that contribute to global warming.
As long as there is a one percent chance of survival, we must try. I can’t imagine that the human race stops doing anything because “the chance of survival is only 10 percent”. Even if it’s one in 10, or one in 100, or one in 1,000, we will still try everything we can to save ourselves and save others.”
“It is not human nature to give up when we see the end coming.”
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