Paris is burning. It was 108 degrees in the French capital on Thursday—smashing the all-time record by a full four degrees. On Wednesday afternoon, electricity consumption had broken another record. Then the national weather site crashed. It’s down again today.
At the Fromager Marie-Anne Cantin on the Left Bank, the cheesemongers were sending customers home with ice. “Normally, we recommend taking cheese out of the fridge an hour before eating it,” a seller named Patricia told me. “Today I think a half-hour will do.”
It’s the second heat wave of the summer in western Europe—a stretch in June led the southern French town of Verargues to break the country’s all-time heat record with a temperature of 115 degrees. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany also set all-time high temperatures on Thursday, and Cambridge, England, recorded a high of 100 degrees—just the second time that mark has ever been reached in the U.K.
Last summer, my colleague Dan Engber cautioned not to rely on record-high temperatures in City X or Y as direct, exact evidence of climate change: Local records are actually breaking less often, even as the global climate warms. Records make for easy headlines, but they’re not necessarily the best way to track the struggles of our carbon dioxide–choked planet.
Still, studies have shown that climate change makes heat waves hotter, longer, and more likely. Scientists believe heat will soon kill more people than cold will, even though the latter has historically been the more deadly temperature extreme, and warmer temperatures are also consistently linked to misbehavior.
There were some signs in Paris on Thursday of a heat-unleashed hedonism. People were swimming in the fountains at the Trocadéro across from the Eiffel Tower, for example. The city has published a map of all its little islands of cool—mist machines, pools, and parks that will be open all night. Just don’t swim in the canals, officials plead. (They are polluted and may contain sunken objects.)
But mostly, it seems, life has just slowed down. “It weighs on you,” Hadrien Catanese, a consultant, said of the experience of being outside. He meant that literally: “It’s like wearing weighted clothes.” It’s also true abstractly: The streets are emptier. The café terraces are deserted. It’s just too hot to do anything, except, actually, work—because the city’s shops and offices, unlike its apartments, tend to be air-conditioned. “It pushes you to stay a little longer at work,” Catanese said. “It makes the commute bearable, to know you’re going somewhere with A/C.”
Christophe Carron, the editor of our sister site Slate.fr, said the same. “I was at a party last night, and usually there’s a moment when people pop out and buy a couple more bottles of wine. For the first time, last night, I saw people going out to buy bottles of water.” No one is going for a drink after work, and cigarette breaks have become extreme sport. “French people smoke all the time, out in the courtyards of the offices. Almost no one is smoking today.”
In short, the heat has turned Paris upside down: Instead of drinking, smoking, and socializing, everyone just wants to spend as much time as possible at the office.
It’s a preview of what summer in once-temperate cities might be like as climate change intensifies: not necessarily weirder, but just kind of boring, as walls of heat—exacerbated by the urban heat island effect, which keeps hotter temperatures around longer—erode the desire to be outside.
The tragedy isn’t just social. In France, the canicule, or dog days, is bringing back memories of the 2003 European heat wave, which killed 15,000 people in France and 70,000 across the continent. Much of what’s happening now—the weather service’s “red alerts” for 20 French départements, for example—is policy that’s a direct result of that summer. The trauma still informs the way the French prepare for and manage heat waves—staying inside, checking on the elderly, and drinking lots of water. Putting a frozen bottle of water in front of a fan is the ubiquitous coping mechanism.
“Everybody’s suffering, especially at night,” said Harold Romer, who sells cheese on the Rue Cler in the city’s 7th arrondissement. “There’s fewer people out, they’re eating less cheese.” Chèvre, he said, has been a popular choice.