As temperature gages hit 40°C across
Europe this week, terrifying heatwaves are becoming the new normal. But we are
not all equal in the face of extreme weather, writes
climate justice campaigner Clemence Hutin.
Last summer, a shocking heatwave seemed
to dry up and set alight our continent before our
eyes. This year we see this terrifying pattern repeating.
In June, parts of France hit the hottest
temperatures the country ever recorded, nearly 46°C. In the United States,
nearly 150 million people were under an excessive
heat warning last weekend. Unheard of forest fires
are - for a third year running - raging in the Arctic, as hundreds of firefighters battle
forest fires in Portugal. Europe is starting to experience
climate breakdown in a realer, scarier way - while the Global South has
been experiencing deadly heatwaves for decades.
These extreme weather events are wake up
calls. They should incite radical action to halt climate breakdown.
But as these events become the new
normal, we must also start rolling out plans to adapt to a hotter world,
knowing that we are not all equal in the face of extreme weather.
We often focus on winter energy poverty, but 1 in 5
in the EU cannot afford to keep their homes cool in the summer.
And it's going to get worse with climate change.
So what do we do? https://t.co/A1nv0AuRGz
— Right to Energy EU (@RightToEnergy) August 13, 2018
The injustice of summer energy poverty
When we think of energy poverty in Europe, we usually think of freezing pensioners in winter. But
energy poverty also harms in summer.
Heatwaves are estimated to kill 12,000 people every year around the world. In
2018, record numbers of people were admitted to hospital in the UK heatwave,
overloading already stretched staff and resources. The same year, in Japan more
than 130 people died and 70,000 were rushed to hospitals; while in
Quebec, the heat claimed the lives of 90.
This is not just a problem of heat. The
poorest and most vulnerable are disproportionately at risk.
In Europe, the latest data tells us that
a fifth of people cannot afford to keep their homes cool
in summer. This spells danger when heatwaves occur: those with lower incomes, people of colour, and homeless people are
on the frontlines, as they tend to live in the most inadequate homes (or none
at all) and have the least access to cooling.
Heat also combines to amplify other
environmental health risks, especially air pollution -- affecting in particular
the elderly, people with heart conditions and chronic disease, those working
outside, and children.
Summer energy poverty: a rising
Heatwaves could increase 50-fold by the start of the next century. A new
study in the UK predicts that heat-related deaths are
set to triple to 7,000 a year by 2050. Current global warming trends could mean three quarters of humanity face deadly
heat by end of century.
And yet, summer energy poverty
receives little attention from media or politicians. Eurostat, the EU
statistics agency, monitors numbers on winter energy poverty every year, but little data is available on summer energy
For those who can afford it, installing
air conditioning can keep them cool. But collectively, this promises only to
further warm the planet, as it draws more demand for (fossil) energy. Global
energy demand for air conditioners is set to overtake that of heating by 2060. In some
cities, AC already accounts for 40 per
cent of power usage. There are also immediate negative
consequences: ACs tend to heat up urban areas, exposing people
outside to even higher temperatures.
Cool the planet, cool our homes
We are heading for a 5 to 6°C warmer
world if we do not radically change our economic model. Current climate
policies, including EU renewables and efficiency targets, are
far from adequate – and are being undermined by plans for new pipelines,
airport runways, fracking rigs and subsidies to fossil fuels.
To have a chance of a safe and cool
climate future, we need the strongest action now to get Europe fossil-free.
We also need adaptation plans for all of Europe, to prepare for
hot (and stormy) years ahead. More green spaces in cities, better agricultural
practices, more effective forest fire prevention and coherent heatwave plans.
Massive investments in energy-efficient homes can help protect people during
heatwaves as well as freezing temperatures – especially if it’s directed at the
most vulnerable – and would reduce carbon emissions and allow for a switch to
100% renewable energy.
We also need immediate steps for relief.
In 2003, a record-breaking heatwave killed 70,000 in Europe. We were not ready for the
public health crisis then: hospitals were unprepared, special care for the
elderly and needy not put in place, information was not disseminated. We need
public awareness on health risks, hotlines providing advice, free public
transport, cooling areas, water distribution in public spaces – and hospitals
at the ready.
Will we be ready next time?