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Climate change and air conditioning in Europe


Western Europe is going through the kind of heat wave that is becoming increasingly common as the systemic effects of climate change change the weather throughout the world:

Wildfires are scorching parts of France and Portugal and temperatures in the U.K. could top 104 degrees for the first time on record as extreme heat takes over much of Europe.

Britain’s national weather agency, known as the U.K. Met Office, issued its first-ever red extreme heat warning Friday. The warnings, in place for Monday and Tuesday, cover much of southern England, where temperatures could reach 40 degrees Celsius – or about 104 degrees.

“Nobody alive has seen a temperature of 40 degrees Celsius in the U.K.” weather.com senior meteorologist Jonathan Erdman pointed out. “That would be a hot day this time of year in Dallas or Houston, much less London.”

In fact, a temperature that high has never even been forecast in Britain, according to the Met Office. The current record high temperature for the U.K. is 38.7 degrees Celsius – about 102 degrees Fahrenheit – set on July 25, 2019, at Cambridge Botanical Garden, about 50 miles north of London.

Travel around London may be snarled on Monday and Tuesday by the heat. Passengers of the London Underground are being told to avoid the popular transit system unless absolutely necessary.

“If customers do need to travel, they should check before they travel as we are expecting there to be some impact to Tube and rail services as a result of temporary speed restrictions we will need to introduce to keep everyone safe,” Andy Lord, chief operating officer of Transport for London, which runs the capital’s transportation system, told the Associated Press.

This is the latest in a series of dangerous heat waves to bring record-breaking, potentially deadly temperatures to parts of Europe in recent decades.

The worst was in August 2003. Several analysis of deaths during that time estimate that about 70,000 people across Europe died because of the heat that summer.

Scientists say climate change is making heat waves worse.

World Wide Weather Attribution, a panel of researchers that studies what role climate change plays in extreme weather events, concluded that 2003’s extreme temperatures – as well as European heat waves in analyzed in 2010, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019 – were found to be much more likely and more intense because of human-induced climate change.

A striking difference between most of Europe on the one hand, and the USA and Japan on the other, is the almost complete absence of residential air conditioning in the former (This is defined as central AC, evaporative coolers, split systems, and window units, so basically any kind of cooling technology more advanced than ceiling fans). This difference is due to both weather-related and cultural factors.

We can to some extent — although not completely — distinguish between cooling (and heating) systems as public health issues, and as manifestations of the hedonic treadmill. As to the latter, people in advanced economies inevitably become less tolerant of ambient temperatures that would have been considered normal by their parents, grandparents, etc.

This is a good thing to the extent that it improves public health — more air conditioning means less people dying in heat waves — but a problematic thing to the extent that rising hedonic standards means rising energy demands that in turn exacerbate the anthropogenic forcing that has gotten us into this mess in the first place. So it’s complicated. (Of course these issues are already becoming much more severe in much of the developing world).

Some figures on percentage of residences with air conditioning in several European countries:

Greece: 99%. This is a massive outlier, and indeed I wonder how reliable this statistic is.

Spain: 30%.

Italy: 7% (Yikes)

France: 5%

Germany: 3%

UK: 3%

The Netherlands: Less than 1%

Another problem here is that a lot of the housing stock in northern Europe in particular is not amenable to retrofitting for most types of AC. ETA: Abigail points out in comments that another problem is that the housing stock is constructed to retain heat, with often very little or no thought given to features that disperse it, such as windows with screens to create cross-breezes etc.

A closely related issue is that the absence of AC in commercial building and on public transportation, such as the London subway system, is creating increasingly significant problems.

As I’ve mentioned before, large swathes of the most heavily populated regions of the USA were mostly empty until residential air conditioning began to become common in the middle of the 20th century. This looks like an interesting book on the subject.

ETA: Commenter Faineg has a piece on this subject in Foreign Policy.

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