Climate change is changing life in Europe

Continued construction in floodplains, urban sprawl into wildfire and landslide-prone areas or paving over land with concrete and asphalt are making cities and towns more vulnerable

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Wed 31 Aug 2022, 11:05 PM

This year the grape harvest in France’s renowned wine regions has already started, the earliest in its long history. Hit by record high temperatures and drought, the vines are producing smaller ripe grapes a full month before usual. And while the vintage is expected to be good, the yield will be about 20 percent lower across France, say experts.

It’s just one measure of the impact climate change is having on Europe. Rising temperatures have hit so fast and hard that some places on the historically mild continent are now looking for guidance from cities such as Ahmedabad in western India, which suffers from regular bouts of extreme heat. Ahmedabad delivers heat alerts by TV, radio and text message and re-tasks public facilities as cooler sanctuaries during blazing episodes.

According to Nikos Christidis, a climate scientist at the UK Met Office, “The chances of seeing 40C days in the UK could be as much as 10 times more likely in the current climate than under a natural climate unaffected by human influence”.

Climate change drives heat waves in two ways, Zachariah said. One is by trapping more heat in the global system. The second impact is “dynamic” — meaning changing weather patterns that bring heat to regions. In Europe’s case, this year a slow-moving high-pressure area brought scorching air up from North Africa.

Has this summer served as a warning that climate change has already brought a new way of life to Europe? The answer is likely yes. And the impacts will be felt in so many ways – ranging from food to industry and even architecture.

But the biggest immediate effects could be on health. Many in Europe still think of high temperatures as a novelty and are unaware of the dangers they pose. The British National Health Service is trying to raise awareness. During the peak of the summer heat, it urged the public to change habits and avoid the sun between 11 am and 3 pm and learn to spot the early signs of heatstroke.

Summer was before a period of relative calm for European health services, but studies have found that heat waves increase emergency rooms visits by at least 10 per cent, with patients reporting symptoms of dehydration and heat stroke.

If measures to adapt are not implemented, annual deaths related to extreme heat in Europe could rise from around 2,700 to as many as 50,000 a year by 2050, according to a European Commission paper published last year.

Intense heat can even damage power grids, so health care infrastructure will need to be updated as well. Hospitals in the United States have lost power during heat waves, so new hospitals are now required to have backup power generators.

The European workplace will also be changed by the warming climate. On a continent largely without air conditioning, employers will likely have to adjust their facilities or their attitudes. German unions have already suggested that on particularly hot days, workers should be entitled to extended lunchtime breaks in sheltered or cool places provided by their employer. There’s even talk in Germany of siestas along with flexible work hours.

Adapting cities to meet the needs of a changing climate is increasingly urgent as nearly 75 per cent of Europeans live in urban areas, a ratio expected to rise further. Continued construction in floodplains, urban sprawl into wildfire and landslide-prone areas or paving over land with concrete and asphalt are making cities and towns more vulnerable, according to a report by the European Environment Agency.

That report notes that current efforts focus on raising awareness or policy recommendations. Physical adaptation solutions such as developing more green space or systems to cope with flash flooding have yet to be implemented on a meaningful scale.

Ironically, the torrid weather could eventually force Europe’s cities to become greener. Centuries-old construction methods result in European cities made of stone and concrete that in turn help create a heat island effect. Planners are considering how they can quickly expand parks and greenbelts to open up corridors for cooling and respiration in Europe’s ancient cities.

The aesthetic of homes themselves in Europe will likely change due to the need for heat-reflective colors, orientation related to the sun and passive cooling designs.

And one day the continent might even have a different culinary environment. Europe’s legendary foods could change with the changing weather, as demonstrated this year by a poor harvest of olives and other staple crops.

Some experts have half-jokingly divided European societies into those with a potato culture (the north) or a tomato culture (the south). If significantly hotter weather persists, the southern countries could likely continue with their staple, but in the north, potato production could be more difficult as temperatures rise.

Industries could also change as energy becomes more dear and basic sectors such as inland shipping are further hobbled. Water in Germany’s Rhine River – crucial for transport, including for chemicals, coal and other supplies – is so low that shipping has been disrupted, while warm water temperatures in France could lower output at some nuclear power plants.

The weather has already told us the change has arrived. Now the question is how profoundly it will affect people’s lives in Europe, a continent long governed by traditional customs.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy.

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