My personal experience of this week’s “heat apocalypse” in Europe involved discovering large globs of hot, sticky tar stuck to my leg after I trod in melted asphalt on a mountain road in France on Sunday afternoon: The road that I was walking on had literally begun to melt.
I was standing on the melted road because the heat was so extreme that my car’s engine had overheated, and my kids and I ended up stranded on top of a steep mountain pass in the Pyrenees until a tow truck finally came to tow us down the mountain to a nearby town. Around the continent, roadside assistance agencies predicted spikes in the number of car breakdowns as the thermometer readings headed north.
Meanwhile, others across Europe were facing much more frightening emergencies as fires engulfed swathes of forest in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Hungary and France, and as the extreme heat triggered housefires and wildfires in and around London. Europe is finally waking to the ghastly realities of the climate crisis and the rampant fires that come with it.
After days of record-breaking temperatures, calamitous forest fires and mounting numbers of deaths associated with the heat, French President Emmanuel Macron called this week for the creation of a European-wide fire-fighting air fleet.
Touring the Gironde, a picturesque region in southwestern France hammered by the fires, Macron pledged a “major national project” of reconstruction and called for new rules and prevention plans designed to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.
Europe’s leaders have realized that the continent has got to play catch-up to shore up its infrastructure, and to protect its fire-vulnerable lands from wildfires.
European countries currently spend only 0.4 percent of their budgets on firefighting services. The German federal government has repeatedly refused to invest in fire-fighting aircraft, apparently believing the country is unlikely to face the sorts of megafires that routinely consume vast tracts of land in the U.S. and Australia.
France does have one of Europe’s best-equipped firefighting fleets, but it tops out at 22 planes. In addition to the national fleets, such as the one France has, the entire EU currently has a dozen firefighting planes that are pooled for use across national boundaries during fire emergencies. Clearly, that’s not adequate to the needs of this climate change moment. By contrast, California, which has been on the frontline of climate change-fueled fires for years, has more than 60 firefighting aircraft.
California, which has, over the past decade, had to adjust to the new realities of fighting vast fires every year, now spends more than 1 percent of its state budget on the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The state is, at least, fortunate in having vast financial resources at its disposal. Many of its neighbors aren’t so lucky; in one western U.S. state after the next, extreme fires have strained state budgets in recent years.
Now, as heat waves become more common and more ferocious in Europe, the continent’s governments (both in national capitals and in Brussels, headquarters of the EU) will also have to adjust upward the amounts they invest in fire prevention services, as well as in firefighting equipment and personnel. It will, inevitably, put a strain on state budgets, and will do so just at the moment when the continent is teetering on the edge of recession and is being battered by stubbornly high inflation.
Taken as a whole, Europe has been caught remarkably unprepared by July’s heat wave. Thousands of people, most of them elderly, died last week as the blast of hot air moved slowly northward from the Mediterranean.
The human dislocation that the heat caused has also threatened to magnify Europe’s already stark economic woes — its currency in decline against the dollar, inflation running at above 9 percent, its loss of stable supplies of Russian gas and oil. If Europe does fall into a severe recession later this year, no single factor will be to blame; but the hit to the region’s economy brought on by a string of debilitating heat waves will certainly be one of the causes contributing to the malaise.
Heat is something of a relative concept. In California or Texas, in Arizona or Oklahoma, summer temperatures a few degrees north of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (100°F) would barely raise eyebrows. Even higher temperatures, such as the 120°F sometimes reached in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Tucson, don’t tend to do quite the same damage that soaring temperatures inflict in Europe. In the American West, populations are accustomed to such temperatures; and houses, public transport systems, office buildings, entertainment centers, malls and so on are designed to include air conditioning. By contrast, in Europe, most buildings, both public and private, do not have air conditioning; many transit systems are similarly lacking; and populations are woefully unfamiliar with how to navigate extremely hot weather.
Moreover, electricity prices have soared so quickly in Europe this past year that even those with air conditioning have had to think twice before using their systems. Electricity wholesale prices rose more than 400 percent in Spain and Portugal from the winter of 2021 through early 2022, and by more than 300 percent in Greece and France. While not all of that has been passed onto consumers, much has; in the 12 months leading up to March of this year, home energy prices around the EU increased by 41 percent. Since then, as gas and oil prices have soared, they have gone up still higher. Faced with shortages of Russian natural gas, the EU has announced a rationing plan to try to cut usage by 15 percent over the coming months. Vastly increased reliance on air conditioning simply isn’t possible in Europe at the moment, given current energy supply and price conditions.
When the heat soared to around 104°F in London on Tuesday, the agency responsible for managing London’s complex public transport system was forced to urge people not to use its un-air conditioned buses and trains. Faced with lack of staff coming into work, many businesses shuttered. In Scotland, the government appealed to the public to cut down on alcohol consumption so as to avoid inebriated people becoming dehydrated in the unusual heat. By Tuesday evening, the London fire brigade was experiencing its busiest day since World War II, as more than 40 properties burned and numerous parks and heaths blazed in the fierce heat.
At Luton airport, just outside of London, outbound flights were canceled and incoming flights had to be diverted after a runway buckled in the heat. Railway tracks around the country also started to fail. Put simply, the U.K.’s infrastructure simply isn’t built to withstand triple-digit temperatures.
For years, European leaders have been at the forefront of global efforts to create meaningful climate change agreements. Yet, despite the strong rhetoric, when push came to shove last week, the continent’s preparedness for extreme weather events was shown to be inadequate. In the U.S., activists are pressuring President Biden to declare a climate emergency. In Europe, where the populace is far more in favor of strong actions to tackle climate change than are Americans, leaders have long realized this is an emergency. Yet the crisis is worsening seemingly by the day. This past week is a preview of just how bad things can get. It’s far past time to tackle this catastrophe with the focus and urgency it so clearly merits.