Europe Is Burning
Speaker 1: When I got Slate’s Henry Grabar on the line on Wednesday, he sounded extremely relieved.
Speaker 2: I am in Paris and it is a very seasonal and reasonable 75 degrees.
Speaker 1: Just a few days ago, Henry was in the middle of Europe’s devastating heat wave. He was in Normandy in the French countryside, staying in his great grandfather’s house.
Speaker 2: Monday and Tuesday were the hottest days. It was well above 100 degrees on both of those days. And it was so hot that you felt like you could not be outside for more than 20 or 30 minutes without starting to feel very unpleasant. And and I’m talking outside in the shade.
Speaker 1: Going into the sun, he says. Was just intolerable. And all around him, it felt like the countryside was roasting.
Speaker 2: There was this kind of smell, like all the sort of like the scent of the grass and the trees and the the crops in the fields. It all seemed to be some more pronounced somehow, as if like everything was like slowly cooking at some level, like there was some kind of molecular reaction that was happening.
Speaker 1: When he did venture out of the house into the village, it was empty and surreal.
Speaker 2: It was like being in an apocalypse movie. So on the last day, on Tuesday, when it was 105 degrees. We were riding our bikes back from my great grandfather’s house to the train station, and it was about 7 p.m. and about 30 miles north of us there were these wheat fields that had caught on fire. And so the air was full of kind of like haze. It was a combination of like haze and heat and rain and the fact that there was nobody out. I mean, everybody seemed to be inside their houses. And I just felt like, wow, this is kind of an, you know, feels like the end of the world.
Speaker 1: 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. Today on the show, the climate crisis is here, why Europe is vulnerable to extreme heat and how it’s trying to adapt. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next TBD a show about technology, power, and how the future will be determined. Stick around.
Speaker 1: For Americans watching this heat wave or experiencing our own. One question that comes up a lot is why Europe and the United Kingdom have so little air conditioning. In France, where Henry is, roughly 75% of people don’t have it.
Speaker 2: I think there is a sense that air conditioning is unnecessary, wasteful and perhaps even counterproductive unnecessarily, because this heat, this kind of heat that we’ve seen in the last two days is rare, very rare for most people. And also because it tends to happen in July and August when schools are out, half the country is on vacation. People like to spend time outside. I think all those things add up to a culture where air conditioning hasn’t really caught on.
Speaker 2: The other thing I would say is that people think it’s wasteful. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has a minister for the energy transition and she was on TV the other day saying that they might forbid air conditioning in public buildings to go below 25 degrees Celsius, which is about 77 degrees Fahrenheit. And that’s something that is actually in place in Italy. They’re trying to save energy, but there is a sense that that, you know, air conditioning is part of Europe’s big problem right now, which is that it does not have enough energy.
Speaker 2: And the third thing I would say about the French attitude towards air conditioning is that they think it’s counterproductive, both 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. Right. So like the cycle and also locally and because it it contributes to the urban heat island effect.
Speaker 1: That’s 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.
Speaker 2: And this is something that you see people talk about a lot in in the news, even during a heat wave, when, you know, reporters will ask experts, you know, is it time to try and install more air conditioning, get air conditioning put in everywhere? And they usually say that they think of air conditioning as basically like a bad kind of adaptation and like yet necessary in places like hospitals and nursing homes. But we should try and resist mass air conditioning adoption in society.
Speaker 2: And one of the statistics I saw about this with respect to it being counterproductive at a local level was 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 two degrees Celsius, which is, you know, 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit. And that just shows that the, you know, the energy use and the heat pumping effect of an air conditioners they think would be a substantial contributor to the hottest days of the year for people who don’t have air conditioning.
Speaker 1: You know, my producer who is from Texas saw the like the 100 number really gets hot, but it’s not that hot. And I think it might be worth laying out like a little context of what people in France are used to.
Speaker 2: That that speaks to my what I was saying about them thinking it’s unnecessary. That’s the other big part of that, right, is in Paris, the average July and August high temperature is 77 degrees Fahrenheit. The low is about 60. So that means it’s nearly ten degrees cooler on both of those points than New York City. And it’s closer to Seattle than it is to pretty much any other American city. And London, obviously, is is both a little cooler and a little rainier. So that speaks to the unnecessary point, which is that like, you know, even if on Monday and Tuesday, many people would have 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. A big issue in Europe is that a lot of stuff is really old buildings, infrastructure, all that. It’s hard to adapt. The London tube is a good example of that. Can’t just stick an air conditioner on the top of the train.
Speaker 1: What are you hearing? What have you been hearing from the French government?
Speaker 2: One of the things that we’ve been getting in Paris is like, you know, little flyers that are posted on local government Facebook pages and they give you advice about what to do on the hottest days. And, you know, France being France, there is like heat wave advice about like some suggested meals you could eat. There’s a recipe for watermelon salad. There’s a specific bullet point on one of these. It says, don’t forget pleasure. Like if to say, like, you know, yeah, this is like a public health crisis and it’s important that you take care of yourself. But like, it’s also important that you enjoy yourself even if you’re stuck inside all day.
Speaker 1: Go, France.
Speaker 2: And, I mean, there’s more practical advice to. There’s all these green spaces that the city has opened until midnight to try and give people a place to hang out.
Speaker 1: Outside Paris also has a masters 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.
Speaker 3: Most of the dead were elderly, left a parish in a city deserted for the annual August holiday. On one day alone, a day that’s now known as Black Monday, 3000 Parisians died. The famous Black Monday went. Around 3000 people died in Paris in one night. Never during the Second World War did so many people die in one night in Paris, even during the bombings.
Speaker 1: Since that disastrous summer, Henri says, France has instituted a series of formal processes to deal with a heat wave, including a national alert system with four levels.
Speaker 2: On Monday morning, we could look when we were out in the country, we could look up the region, we were in, the department we were in, and they would show us a color. And I’m happy to say that we were in the orange zone and not in the red zone. And each of those zones come with comes with various pieces of advice about, you know, what kind of risk you’re at and what kind of steps you should take and all that. There are new rules about working conditions in high temperatures and when what kind of, you know, care can be taken to make sure that people who who do have to be working outside don’t end up suffering from from heatstroke or exhaustion or anything like that.
Speaker 2: And and the other thing, which I think is really interesting is that there is a registry for vulnerable people. So if you have health problems and you’re over 65 and you live alone and you can put yourself or one of your relatives or friends can put you on a list of people who get checked in on by the city. And there’s so 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.
Speaker 1: I mean, it really sounds like that that heat wave, which I remember, kind of galvanized the government into building in some some climate related resiliency.
Speaker 2: Yeah, to the extent they can. I mean, I think a lot of this infrastructure is like it’s soft infrastructure, right? It’s like pract it’s like practice practices, it’s, it’s routines. It’s, it’s thinking about heat waves as a kind of event that we know how to prepare for and that we can mitigate by following best practices. And I guess recognizing that they, they constitute a pretty severe disruption to the normal way of life and that when we have these heat wave days, people should not be expected to go about their day as they as they would on any other hot day, that it represents a legitimate environmental crisis. And and you should tell people not to go outside in the same way you would tell people not to drive during a snowstorm.
Speaker 1: When we come back, Europe confronts its dirty energy supply.
Speaker 1: How much discussion or public awareness is there that this is tied to climate change?
Speaker 2: A lot. The United Kingdom’s Met Office had a chart out showing the top ten hottest UK days on record, including yesterday and Monday. I think eight or nine of those have come since the year 2000. So as a pretty powerful visual statement when you see it and basically nobody is in. Nobody has any doubt that that this is this is a climate change consequence.
Speaker 1: It’s interesting to hear you reference the Met Office. There was a quote I saw from the wonderfully named Penny Enders B saying, Our lifestyles and infrastructure are not adapted to what is coming. And it was both kind of a bleak quote, but also it just struck me as so much more of a matter of fact way of talking about climate change than you might hear in the US.
Speaker 2: To the extent there’s a debate about climate change in Europe, it’s not a debate about whether climate change is happening or not. 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, you know, a senator carrying a snowball into the US Capitol.
Speaker 2: Right. But yeah, people are well aware that climate change is is coming, that it’s it’s threatening the way of life, whether it’s agricultural practices or train service or, you know, extreme weather in in all its forms.
Speaker 2: The EU has a goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which is pretty ambitious and in a way like they’re already so aware and committed. And climate change is such a part of the discussion that in some ways I feel like this heat wave hasn’t prompted a wave of calls for more ambitious climate proposals or anything like that. Like that stuff is already on the books. But yeah, no one has any doubt that the climate changes is part of it. I mean, I think, you know, the difficult thing, the way that the way the climate change debate plays out is difficult decisions about adaptation, right? Like in France, for example, there’s a lot of debate about how big a role nuclear energy should play.
Speaker 1: Which has traditionally been a a much bigger thing in France than in neighbouring countries.
Speaker 2: It’s huge. It provides like 70% of France’s power, which has been a lifesaver at a time when oil and gas from Russia has been hard to come by. So France, you know, in retrospect, that decision looks smart. But, you know, in France, like in the United States, there’s long been a left wing environmentalist suspicion of nuclear energy and the sense that, you know, they ought to be able to get to 100% 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. But that’s an example of the kind of climate change debates that are happening in French politics.
Speaker 1: Well, there’s this this broader debate that I wanted to ask you about. So the EU countries obviously have been trying to use less Russian oil and gas. And they’ve they’ve now this week been asked to cut their natural gas use by 15% till next spring. So what did they do? It feels like a very difficult place if you have to cut your Russian oil and gas consumption. And yet here you are trying to to meet climate goals.
Speaker 2: Yeah. It’s going to be really, really hard because oil and gas is obviously not the cleanest way to to generate power. But if they lose access to Russian gas potentially entirely, which is something that people are talking about now, which would have been unthinkable two or three years ago, they’re going to have to rely on dirtier forms of power, generation, in particular, coal.
Speaker 2: It’s not just that that coal is a dirty foreign power generation. It’s going to make it harder for them to get to net zero. It’s going to create localized air pollution. But it’s also that there’s a real question about to what extent they’ll be able to generate enough power this winter to heat everybody’s homes, to keep all the cars on the road, to keep all the factories open. And I guess what what you’re talking about is there, you know, basically countries are being asked to ration fuel and where is that fuel going to come from? Which sectors of the economy are going to use less energy this winter than they did last winter or the winter before?
Speaker 2: I think that’s that’s not clear at all. And that’s one reason that one of the really one of the things you do not see coming out of two of the hottest days in history in England, I guess that the hottest day in history is people coming out there and saying, all right, we need to install an air conditioner in every home because there’s really no room on the grid for that.
Speaker 1: Then there are what Henry calls the kooky infrastructure effects of the heat wave, things that move very quickly from individual problems to systemic ones.
Speaker 2: It’s not just that people need to stay inside, people need to stay safe, but like systems start breaking down when it gets this hot, for example. FRANCIS 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, which is the sort of big river running through the German industrial heartland, is really, really low.
Speaker 2: And 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. So we’re 14 inches of Rhine River evaporation away from some kind of shut down or slow down there. So that’s another example, you know, of just one more thing to worry about.
Speaker 1: These big questions about infrastructure and economic systems also need to be asked about how we design our urban environment to be more resilient in the future. I know that you think a lot about sort of cities and design and adaptation, and I wanted to ask you about this thing that is sticking in my brain. There was a sentence in the New York Times about how houses in the U.K. were built to retain heat in the winter. Right. That makes so much sense. You think about like a traditional British Isles. But that also has made me think about how we design and build for the future. And I think I maybe had this misapprehension that the UK and the EU were further along than the United States in designing and building for a warming planet. But like, maybe, maybe I was totally off base. How? How do you think design factors into this? Like, is Europe ahead of us, behind us? Answer all these big questions for me.
Speaker 2: Henry Hmm. That is it’s very complicated, you know, because I think the baseline. Right, is that the building stock in Europe is really old. Okay. That’s that’s that’s the first thing you need to get out of the way. And in some respects, that sometimes means that it’s super sustainable and energy efficient because it’s been built using basically like, you know, the old ways in general. I would say that the EU is probably ahead of the U.S. on this. The UK actually just introduced its new building regulations on overheating last month and they’re really interesting and they’re really forward thinking and they’re definitely more ambitious than anything that we have going in the United States.
Speaker 2: This document, which came out last month, says that every apartment in the U.K. must be categorized according to whether it has cross ventilation, which means does this apartment have windows on both sides? That sounds like the most basic thing in the world. But wind won’t blow through and cool an apartment if you only have windows on one side of the apartment, which is standard practice in most U.S. multifamily buildings, as not the case in Europe. And that means that these you know, just by virtue of having windows on two sides of the apartment, you’re much more likely to get a cross breeze.
Speaker 2: So this is actually built into the U.K. regulations along with things like. How much square footage of window is there? You know, basically to let in sunlight, which is then going to heat the apartment. And there are instructions on how to mitigate that with shutters or external overhangs. And, you know, when you see some of this stuff in practice, you think that is just so genius. I mean, it’s so simple to put an overhang over a window. And and it means that in the winter, when the winter sun is low, you get 100% of the sunlight just comes right into the apartment, the apartment warms up, it’s brighten, etc. In the summer when the sun is high, the sun hits the overhang on the way into the window and it blocks the light and the heat from from heating up your apartment.
Speaker 2: So some of this stuff is just so basic and and it’s really interesting, I think that the UK has basically said that this is required for new apartments, all this kind of stuff is required and that mechanical cooling, which is to say air conditioning can only be used when insufficient heat and this is a quote, can only be used when insufficient heat is capable of being removed from the indoor environment without it. So basically you can only check these boxes with AC if you didn’t already try all the other stuff first.
Speaker 1: It just seems like, I don’t know, I guess listening to that, it just seems like such a 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.
Speaker 2: There’s obviously two sides of adapting to climate change, and 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. And they’re really on the second half of that at this at this moment in time. I mean, 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. So there won’t be any gas powered cars sold in Europe in 2036, which is in 14 years. Kind of seems really soon to be happening. But in terms of the mitigation stuff, I mean, that’s where a lot of I mean, that’s I think where people rightly feel like this is within our power to do this. We can make a lot of progress here and we can we can’t control highways, but we can make sure that we’ve done everything we can to to make sure that the societal disruption is relatively minimal.
Speaker 1: But in doing that, Henry says, there’s an important mental shift that needs to happen. People can’t be expected to simply carry on an uninterrupted, normal existence in the face of such extreme events.
Speaker 2: I think it’s becoming clear that it’s going to be necessary for people to just stop and recognise that, you know, a two day, a two day period with with temperatures, this extreme means that normal life has to go on hold.
Speaker 1: Henry Grabar, thank you so much for talking with me.
Speaker 2: My pleasure.
Speaker 1: Henry Grabar covers city’s architecture and the environment for Slate. And that is it for our show today. What next? TBD is produced by Evan Campbell. Our show is edited by Tori Bosch. Joanne Levine is the executive producer for What next? Alicia montgomery is vice president of Audio for Slate. TBD is part of the larger what next family, and it’s also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. We will be back on Sunday with another episode. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.