Just a few days ago, Slate’s Henry Grabar was in the middle of Europe’s devastating heat wave. He was in Normandy, in the French countryside, where on Monday and Tuesday the temperatures hit well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. When he did venture out of the house, the village was empty and surreal. Wheat fields to the north of him had caught on fire, and the sky was filled with a combination of haze, heat, and rain. It felt, to Henry, like the end of the world.
It sounds dramatic, but it might be a glimpse of what the end could feel like. As the planet struggles under the weight of climate change, Europe is reeling from a record-breaking heat wave. More than a thousand people have died. Wildfires broke out in four countries, British train service was suspended, and the London Bridge was wrapped in foil to protect it. On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Henry Grabar, who covers cities, architecture, and the environment for Slate, about why Europe is vulnerable to extreme heat, and how it’s trying to adapt. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lizzie O’Leary: For Americans, one question that comes up a lot is why Europe and the United Kingdom have so little air conditioning. In France, where you are, roughly 75 percent of people don’t have it. Why do you think that is?
Henry Grabar: I think there is a sense that air conditioning is unnecessary, wasteful, and perhaps even counterproductive. Unnecessary because this kind of heat that we’ve seen in the last two days, is rare—very rare, for most people. It tends to happen in July and August when schools are out, half the country’s on vacation. People think it’s wasteful. And the French attitude towards air conditioning is that they think it’s counterproductive. Globally speaking, because air conditioners require power generation. Power generation tends to be dirty and contributes to the problem that requires the air conditioners in the first place. And also locally, because it contributes to the urban heat island effect—
Which is when an urban area, usually someplace particularly dense, is hotter than surrounding places. Buildings, lack of trees, and lots of pavement often contribute to the heat island effect.
And this is something that you see people talk about a lot in the news, even during a heat wave, when reporters will ask experts, “Is it time to get air conditioning put in everywhere?” And they usually say that they think of air conditioning as, basically, a bad adaptation. I saw a study saying that if the number of air conditioners in Paris were to double between now and 2030, the temperature on a summer day, when they’re all in use, could go up by as much as 2 degrees Celsius, which is 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit.
My producer, who is from Texas, saw the 100 number, and was sort of like, “Yeah, that’s hot, but it’s not that hot.” Can you give us some context of what temperatures people in France are used to?
In Paris, the average July and August high temperature is 77 degrees Fahrenheit. The low is about 60. That means it’s nearly 10 degrees cooler, on both of those points, than New York City. And London, obviously, is both a little cooler and a little rainier. Even if on Monday and Tuesday many people would’ve loved to have an air conditioner, there simply aren’t that many days of the year where it seems even remotely necessary to have one.
What have you been hearing from the French government?
One of the things that we’ve been getting in Paris is little flyers that are posted on local government Facebook pages, and they give you advice about what to do on the hottest days. And, France being France, there’s heat wave advice about some suggested meals you could eat. There’s a recipe for watermelon salad. There’s a specific bullet point on one of these that says, don’t forget pleasure. To say like, “Yeah, this is a public health crisis, and it’s important that you take care of yourself, but it’s also important that you enjoy yourself.” There’s more practical advice, too. There are all these green spaces that the city has opened, until midnight, to try and give people a place to hang out, outside.
Paris also has misters in outdoor spaces, and there’s been an effort by the mayor to incorporate more shade and trees into the city. A lot of this came after the 2003 heat wave that killed more than 15,000 people in France. Since then, France has instituted a series of formal processes to deal with a heat wave, including a national alert system with four levels. How does that work?
On Monday morning, we could look up the region we were in, the department we were in, and they would show us a color. Each of those zones comes with various pieces of advice about what kind of risk you’re at and what kind of steps you should take. There are new rules about working conditions in high temperatures. What kind of care can be taken to make sure that people who do have to be working outside, don’t end up suffering from heat stroke, or exhaustion, or anything like that.
The other thing is that there’s a registry for vulnerable people. If you have health problems, and you’re over 65, and you live alone, you can put yourself on a list of people who get checked in on by the city. There’s 10,500 people on this list in Paris, and the city takes the responsibility of contacting them, and seeing how they’re doing. And there’s even a program called Accompanied by Paris, where volunteers will come and help you out with errands or just go for a walk with you.
It really sounds like that heat wave galvanized the government into building in some climate-related resiliency. Is that accurate?
Yeah, to the extent they can. I think a lot of this infrastructure is soft infrastructure. It’s practices. It’s routines. It’s thinking about heat waves as an event that we know how to prepare for, and that we can mitigate by following best practices. And I guess recognizing that when we have these heat wave days, people should not be expected to go about their day as they would on any other hot day, that it represents a legitimate environmental crisis.
How much discussion, or public awareness is there, that this is tied to climate change?
A lot. The United Kingdom’s Met Office had a chart out showing the top 10 hottest U.K. days on record. I think eight or nine of those have come since the year 2000. That’s a pretty powerful visual statement, when you see it. Nobody has any doubt that this is a climate change consequence.
It’s interesting to hear you reference the Met Office. There was a quote I saw, from the wonderfully named Penny Endersby, saying “Our lifestyles and infrastructure are not adapted to what is coming.” And it was a bleak quote, but also, it struck me as a much more of a matter-of-fact way of talking about climate change than you might hear in the U.S.
To the extent that there’s a debate about climate change in Europe, it’s not a debate about whether climate change is happening. It’s not a debate about the science. It’s a debate about what to do. And that question is actually much harder than where we’re at in America, which is like a senator carrying a snowball into the U.S. Capitol. But yeah, people are well aware that climate change is coming. That it’s threatening the way of life, whether it’s agricultural practices, or train service, or extreme weather in all its forms. The EU has a goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which is pretty ambitious. In a way, climate change is such a part of the discussion that this heat wave hasn’t prompted a wave of calls for more ambitious climate proposals. That stuff is already on the books. I think that the difficult thing is the decisions about adaptation. In France, for example, there’s a lot of debate about how big a role nuclear energy should play.
Which has traditionally been a much bigger thing in France, than in neighboring countries.
It’s huge. It provides like 70 percent of France’s power, which has been a lifesaver, at a time when oil and gas from Russia has been hard to come by. In France, like in the United States, there’s long been a left-wing environmentalist suspicion of nuclear energy, and the sense that they ought to be able to get to 100 percent renewable energy using wind and solar, for example. I think most people now accept that nuclear is going to play a role in getting them to net-zero by 2050.
What are other problems that are being caused by this heat wave?
It’s not just that people need to stay inside and people need to stay safe, but systems start breaking down when it gets this hot. France’s nuclear power plants are running at reduced capacity because the water is so warm, so, it’s not as effective as a cooling agent. Another sort of related issue is that the water level in the Rhine River in the German industrial heartland is really, really low. It’s about 14 inches from being so low that barges laden with commodities, won’t be able to ply the Rhine, and connect the German industrial plants in the Ruhr, to the Port of Rotterdam, which is Europe’s biggest port. We’re 14 inches of Rhine River evaporation away from some kind of shutdown or slow down.
You think a lot about cities, and design, and adaptation. And I wanted to ask you about this thing that is sticking in my brain. There was this sentence in the New York Times about how houses in the U.K. were built to retain heat in the winter. That makes so much sense, but that also has made me think about how we design, and build, for the future. How does design factor into this? Is Europe ahead of us, behind us?
That’s very complicated because the building stock in Europe is really old. And that sometimes means that it’s super sustainable and energy efficient because it’s been built using, basically, the old ways. In general, I would say that the EU is probably ahead of the U.S. on this. The U.K. actually just reintroduced its new building regulations on overheating last month. They’re really forward-thinking, and they’re definitely more ambitious than anything that we have going in the United States. This document says that every apartment in the UK must be categorized according to whether it has cross ventilation, which means: Does this apartment have windows on both sides? This is actually built into the U.K. regulations, along with things like, how much square footage of window is there, basically to let in sunlight, which is then going to heat the apartment. There are instructions on how to mitigate that with shutters or external overhangs. And that mechanical cooling—air conditioning—can only be used, and this is a quote, when insufficient heat is capable of being removed from the indoor environment without it. Basically, you can only check these boxes with AC if you didn’t already try all the other stuff first.
Listening to that, it just seems like such a realization that climate change is here, and happening, and baked in, and sorry, you don’t get the easy way out. You have to do all the other things.
There’s obviously two sides of adapting to climate change. One of them is trying to reduce carbon emissions, and the other one is recognizing that it’s here, and trying to mitigate its effects. They’re really on the second half of that, at this moment in time. A lot of the first stuff, like we were saying, is, sort of, baked in, getting to net-zero. They’re phasing out internal combustion engines by 2035. There won’t be any gas-powered cars sold in Europe in 2036. But in terms of the mitigation stuff, that’s, I think, where people feel like “This is within our power to do this. We can make a lot of progress here, and we can’t control heat waves, but we can make sure that we’ve done everything we can to make sure that the societal disruption is relatively minimal.”