Son et Lumière Over French Heat Wave

With over 10,000 deaths ascribed in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />France to the recent European heat wave, the finger-pointing has begun. Many of these fingers are pointing at the French government, others at global warming. Yet when the issue is put in perspective, responsibility probably lies elsewhere, and the solution, which would save many if not most of those lives, lies in learning, quelle domage, from America.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


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For a start, when is a heat wave a heat wave? In Japan recently, environmentalists protested a “heat wave” of five days over 30° C (roughly 86° F) by pouring water on the streets of Tokyo to dampen the heat island effect (which at least they acknowledged). Many temperatures called a heat wave in one country are regarded as perfectly livable by people in other countries (I remember running around in the north of England wearing very little during the great heat wave of 1976–yet the temperatures were only in the high seventies where I lived). Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the first two weeks of August affected France badly, with temperatures of 104° F. To say that this was a pan-European phenomenon, however, would be exaggerating its extent. As this map shows, France and, to a lesser extent, Germany and the Czech Republic did experience temperatures significantly higher than normal, but the picture was mixed in Britain, Italy, Spain and the Low Countries and colder than usual in much of Poland, Sweden and Portugal. Far from being a continental phenomenon, this was pretty localized.


Nevertheless, there is no doubt that France did experience something out of the ordinary. Yet we still do not know how many people died from the effects of the heat. The widely-quoted 10,000 figure is an estimate produced by a major firm of undertakers. Although it was at first described as reasonable by the French government, they have since backed off from that claim and have launched two parallel investigations to decide how many people perished. The figure should therefore be taken with a large pinch of salt. In England, where densely-populated Southern England saw record temperatures set, the initial assessment suggested 900 more deaths than average for the time of year during the heat wave, although that figure varies by up to 500 either side, such are the vagaries of the statistics. It is therefore safe to say that a reasonably substantial number of deaths are probably ascribable to the excess heat.


This used to happen in the USA, too. Yet it doesn't any more. New research (available here in PDF format) from University of Virginia researchers Bob Davies, a climate scientist, and Wendy Novicoff, a public health specialist, indicates that America has adapted to hot weather over the last couple of decades. In the 60s and 70s, days of excessive heat would claim significantly more lives in America's major cities than days of normal temperature. The average number of such deaths from 1964-1991 led the Max Planck Institute to predict doubling or tripling of heat-related mortality rates in cities like Chicago and St Louis by 2050 in their contribution to the National Assessment of Climate Change. Yet Davies and Novicoff's data demonstrate that simply hasn't happened. Across the United States, annual excess mortality from heat-related deaths has decreased by around 80 percent since the 1960s, despite an apparent increase in average temperature.


Davies and Novicoff attribute this decrease to sociological and physiological adaptations. In other words, we've gotten used to hotter weather while at the same time have mitigated its worst aspects by improving access to air conditioning, better health care and proactive community response and warning measures.


All these things seem to have been lacking in France. High energy taxes, as Pat Michaels of the University of Virginia has pointed out, are a disincentive to investment in air conditioning. The health system has been criticized for having too many doctors on holiday and community response seems to have been particularly lacking. The main contributing factor currently being discussed is the absence of family members on holiday that would otherwise have checked up on the vulnerable elderly who seem to have been worst affected. The surprise factor strongly suggests the lack of an early warning system.


In many ways, therefore, the French disaster was needless. By learning from the way America reacted in the past to the problem of heat-related excess mortality, France could have avoided its current problems. Heat waves are not a new phenomenon, in France, America or anywhere else, so blaming the entire debacle on global warming when the average temperature has risen only slightly over the past few decades is merely an exercise in scapegoating. France needs to encourage the private use of air conditioning and put in place appropriate warning and response systems in its communities if it really wants to reduce the chances of this happening again. Until it does that, all the discussion about causes and blame will be merely sound and light.