Europe is not ready for a warmer world – POLITICO

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Europe was unprepared for the extreme heat it experienced in that hellish July.

This is clear from the death toll from the heatwave so far – with more than 2,000 people dead in Spain and Portugal, a number that is expected to rise when data is released in France, the UK, in Belgium and the Netherlands and in much of Central and Eastern Europe, where the heat still persisted this weekend.

Europe’s unpreparedness was on display when massive fires spread across France, Spain, Greece and Portugal last week and, instead of deploying additional firefighting planes, the Union European was in talks to buy them.

This can also be seen in the impact of the heat wave on the economy, with energy, transport and technology infrastructure all struggling to function in temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius.

As temperatures hit historic records across the continent, including the UK, climate scientists have warned that this is not a freak incident: such extreme and higher heat will return more and more frequently due to climate change.

While the severity of the heat wave was new, the response and precautions governments take – or don’t take – in the face of extreme heat can determine the death toll and the level of disruption to society and society. the economy.

“That’s really how we deal with it,” said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross climate center and member of the EU’s scientific advisory board on climate change. “In a way, those hundreds of lives lost during the heat waves are all wasted lives.”

At the highest level, European governments simply fail to adequately plan for a warmer planet. All EU countries have drawn up national plans on how they will deal with climate change. But they are often poorly designed and unfunded.

Under EU law, each member country is asked to report how much it spends on so-called “climate adaptation” – in total and by sector. POLITICO’s analysis of their reports shows that 20 out of 27 countries provide little or no detail on their spending plans.

“They just don’t have it,” said Wouter Vanneuville, a climate change adaptation expert at the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Disastrous response

Heat is the deadliest natural disaster in Europe. Over the past four decades, between 76,000 and 128,000 people have died in heat waves, according to EEA data shared with POLITICO.

But the highest number of heat-related deaths in recent decades have been recorded not in typically hot Spain or Italy, but in Germany, underscoring the role played by local policies and preparedness levels.

According to the World Health Organisation, less than half of the 27 EU countries have action plans to manage the health effects of extreme heat – and of those that do, more than half are insufficiently funded.

In Madrid, a street sweeper died of heat stroke during the July 16 heat wave | Jorge Guerrero/AFP via Getty Images

“The gap between the level of danger and the pace of action is outrageous,” said Martin Herrmann, a Munich-based doctor and chairman of the German Alliance for Climate Protection and Health, a network of health workers. health. “We don’t know when the next big thing will happen and we’re not prepared.”

Some countries began to act after a deadly heat wave in 2003. France adopted a so-called flat heat wave to better alert and protect local residents; many of its city authorities have also registered their most vulnerable citizens so they can get health advice as a heat wave approaches.

Van Aalst said such policies have dramatically reduced death rates. But preparedness levels vary widely.

Five years after Germany’s Environment Ministry called for local heat action plans, a survey of 300 German district authorities by Die Zeit newspaper found that 80% had no protocols in place. square.

The country is also unprepared to fight wildfires at the rate and scale at which they are currently engulfing vast tracts of land. In the Land of North Rhine-Westphalia alone, 11 fires broke out in four days.

Even as they rush to burning fields and forests, firefighters are grappling with a tangled bureaucratic web, said Ulrich Cimolino of the Association of German Firefighters.

Brigade leaders must request firefighting helicopters from the local command center, which must request the regional government, which must request the Federal Ministry of the Interior, which then checks whether the regional or federal police or the pilots of the army are available to fly.

At best, this process takes one to two hours, Cimolino told German media. But some states also require forms to be completed — throughout the fire’s spread — meaning approval can take several hours.

Compare that to Greece, where authorities this week deployed 15 planes to fight blazes in the Athens area within 26 minutes of detecting the blaze, the Kathimerini newspaper reported.

Economic blow

The incentive to adapt to warmer temperatures is also economic. In many parts of Europe, the heat wave caused critical infrastructure to fail due to soaring temperatures.

In London, Luton Airport had to suspend flights after heat damaged the runway. Much of the UK rail system has been shut down. In the Netherlands, Amsterdam resorted to spraying water on its bridges to keep them functional, while in Italy the motorway and rail lines linking Trieste to the rest of the country had to be closed as the fires in forest engulfed the region.

In France and Belgium, nuclear power plants have stopped or reduced their activities because the cooling water was getting too hot.

Even cyberspace is not immune to the heat. Google and Oracle’s cloud division suffered cooling unit “failures” in the UK this week, with Oracle pointing to “unusual high temperatures” as the cause.

European data centers, which power all sorts of daily web activity, are hard to keep cool at the best of times. This is one of the reasons why the data centers of some of the biggest tech companies have been placed in northern climates and mostly next to water sources that can be used to cool servers.

As scorching heat begins to reach these areas, particularly if accompanied by drought, data center operators will face a fine line: ensuring their water cooling units are fit for a future ever warmer, while also facing scrutiny for their high water usage as it becomes scarcer.

Adapting infrastructure and cities to become heat resistant will also come at a high price.

Most northern European homes are built to retain rather than expel heat, and typically don’t have air conditioning units, meaning making them more heat resistant will require massive renovations. Spanish houses are air-conditioned about four times more than French houses. Estimates in the UK range from 1-5% of households.

In Austria, hundreds of fish died as continued heat drained Lake Zicksee | Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images

Cities also tend to be planned without considering how heat can be trapped when the mercury reaches extreme levels, creating a so-called “heat island” effect. Harnessing a warmer future will require planting trees, adapting building codes and investing in materials that can withstand hot and cold.

Change of mentality

The final frontier of preparation is in the minds of Europeans. Even as weather agencies issued increasingly frantic warnings of the risk to life posed by the record heat, many people packed up their barbecues and sunscreen, ready for summer fun.

It’s an “enigma,” van Aalst said, because for most people the heat is manageable. UK media sections derided “snowflakes” for raising concerns about the elderly, young and sick, who are at much higher risk in hot weather.

“We may scoff at the idea that a nice day at the beach is a dangerous phenomenon. But these are the real impacts that we have just seen in our own countries,” he said.

In Germany, even institutions responsible for vulnerable people, such as nursing homes and kindergartens, often do not see high temperatures as a threat.

This week in Bavaria, where no local administration has drawn up a heat action plan, “at 36 degrees [Celsius]schools still have sports competitions and then they are surprised when the kids collapse,” said Herrmann of the Alliance for Climate Protection and Health.

“We don’t yet have this societal reflex to recognize the danger of heat.”

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