Cooling demand is projected to increase under climate change. However, most of the existing projections are based on rising air temperatures alone, ignoring that rising temperatures are associated with increased humidity; a lethal combination that could significantly increase morbidity and mortality rates during extreme heat events. We bridge this gap by identifying the key measures of heat stress, considering both air temperature and near-surface humidity, in characterizing the climate sensitivity of electricity demand at a national scale. Here we show that in many of the high energy consuming states, such as California and Texas, projections based on air temperature alone underestimates cooling demand by as much as 10–15% under both present and future climate scenarios. Our results establish that air temperature is a necessary but not sufficient variable for adequately characterizing the climate sensitivity of cooling load, and that near-surface humidity plays an equally important role.