As Extreme Heat Becomes New Normal in Europe, Governments Scramble to Respond
PARIS — In France, a once uncommon word is increasingly on people’s lips: “canicule,” or heat wave, and its growing usage is a stark reminder of what scientists say may be the new normal: extreme heat and its deadly toll.
Across France this week, and also in Britain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, heat records were smashed, leaving millions of Europeans searching for solutions to endure temperatures soaring above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
With summers getting hotter, and their populations suffering — and dying — officials across Europe have been scrambling to come up with measures to protect desperate residents in places that never even had the need for air-conditioning before.
France has taken what is arguably the most aggressive stance, moved by a heat wave in the summer of 2003 that killed 15,000 people.
The next year, the country put a national plan in place to deal with deadly heat waves.
“The ‘canicule’ surprised the whole French government because it had harsh consequences on the people,” Delphine Colle, the head of the crisis preparedness office at the French Health Ministry, said about the 2003 heat wave. “We had to address the heat wave issue, and it resulted in an unprecedented national policy.”
In that 2003 heat wave, many of the dead in France were older people living alone in city apartments or in retirement homes that were not air-conditioned. In 2004, French authorities introduced what was in effect a heat tax to fund programs to protect its most vulnerable, older citizens, along with a heat alert system, or “plan canicule,” which successive governments have activated every summer since.
This week, 20 of the country’s 96 administrative departments were placed under red alert, the highest warning under the plan, which urges people to take “absolute vigilance.” Some 60 departments were placed under orange, the next-highest level.
CreditAndrea Mantovani for The New York Times
“Our communication campaigns now target the entire population, and not only older people or children,” Ms. Colle said. “It’s vital to make people understand that we are all affected and that, no, biking under such heat is not reasonable.”
Since 2018, the national heat prevention plan has been extended from June 1 to mid-September, instead of Aug. 31 — a sign, meteorologists said, that heat risks now spread across a longer period.
Experts have applauded France’s efforts.
“France is on alert: Public authorities and Météo France have become much better at coordinating themselves,” said Jean Jouzel, who was vice chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 when it won the Nobel Prize. “They now see the threats coming, and we now all know that more and more are coming.”
Météo France is the national weather service.
While the government in Britain has acknowledged the growing risk of deaths connected to heat waves, not much headway has been made in mitigating the dangers.
The average number of premature heat-related deaths in Britain, now about 2,000 a year, is expected to triple to more than 7,000 by the 2050s unless action is taken, the Committee on Climate Change, an independent advisory group, has said.
“At present, there are no comprehensive policies in place to adapt existing homes and other buildings to high temperatures, manage urban heat islands, nor safeguard new homes,” the climate change committee wrote in a 2017 report. “The level of risk from overheating across the U.K. is unknown for hospitals, care homes, schools, prisons, and places of work.”
In Germany, authorities have provided few emergency measures and have instead focused on longer-term plans, with lawmakers debating how to put a price tag on carbon emissions.
The country’s agriculture minister has also called for a reforestation program worth 550 million euros, or $611 million, to plant new trees in the country’s aging forests, as part of measures that would help to reduce carbon emissions.
“Trees bring solutions to short and long-term concerns against global warming,” said Solène Marry, an urban planning expert at ADEME, France’s publicly funded Agency for Environment and Energy Management. “If planted in loose soil in cities, they help fight heat islands by stocking water and providing shade, their effect is immediate.”
Major cities in Europe have adopted their own heat plans.
Paris has made available 3,000 reusable water bottles to homeless people over the summer; created a mobile app listing “isles of coolness” — parks and other public spaces — where people can enjoy cooled environment; and said it checks up on vulnerable people who are registered on a self-declared list through regular phone calls.
The city of Vienna has pledged €8 million, or about $8.9 million, to plant new shade trees throughout the city in 2019 and 2020 and has earmarked additional funds for the installation of public misters and water fountains.
While such measures can help, they won’t be enough in the long term to offset ever more extreme heat waves, scientists and climate activists say.
“Both emergency measures and long-term plans are needed, and both are linked,” said Mr. Jouzel, the climatologist. “Yet populations in Europe are likely to ask for more short-term reliefs, as they see the concrete effects of climate change becoming more frequent.”
In December, President Emmanuel Macron of France canceled a fuel tax increase under pressure from the Yellow Vests protests, pushing France further from its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Mr. Macron has been eager to send strong messages for the climate, yet his actions don’t reflect that, and he is clearly not delivering on his promises,” said Anne Bringault of the pro-environment group Réseau Action Climat.
But Ms. Bringault acknowledged that Mr. Macron has generally been a strong advocate in the fight against climate change, a stance different from some of Europe’s new populist leaders, one of whom dismissed the new normal of heat waves as recently as this spring.
“Talking about global warming — we are in the middle of May and call upon global warming because we haven’t had a cold like this in Italy in recent years,” Italy’s interior minister and de facto leader, Matteo Salvini, said in Milan in May. “We are turning on our heaters.”
A month later, a heat wave scorched Milan and much of the rest of Italy.