Tourists took shelter under umbrellas as they lined up at Florence’s majestic cathedral this week, seeking shade. Street vendors peddled fans and straw hats. Locals splashed their faces at water fountains, all seeking respite from Europe’s latest heat wave.
“It feels like home,” said Alina Magrina, a 64-year-old tourist from California, parts of which, like much of the southern United States, have also been hit by sweltering temperatures. “But at home, we move from one air-conditioned space to the next.” Walking in the sun in Florence made her chest hurt, she said, stopping to buy an extra fan on the Italian city’s iconic Ponte Vecchio.
Extreme heat has now become a fixture of summer months in many parts of the world, not only in the United States, but especially in Europe, a continent defined by its almost unchanging architecture and ways of life. However, however Europe is warming faster than the global averageevery year it seems particularly unprepared.
Experts say Europe’s governments have significantly ignored the alarms sounded nearly 20 years ago, when a heat wave in 2003, the continent’s hottest year on record, left an estimated 70,000 people dead. A report released this week attributed 61,000 deaths in Europe to its scorching temperatures last summer.
This year threatens to repeat the disaster. In some parts of southern Europe, heat waves started as early as May. The most recent heat wave – named Cerberus for the multi-headed dog that guards the gates of the underworld – sent temperatures well above 37 degrees Celsius, or nearly 99 degrees Fahrenheit, in Florence, Rome and parts of Sardinia and Sicily this week.
Another round of high temperatures, part of the heat wave caused by an African anticyclone, is expected in the coming days, with peaks of 48 degrees Celsius, or 118 degrees Fahrenheit, or more.
Since the scorching summer of 2003, governments across Europe have set up national adaptation strategies and regularly issued heat warnings and guidelines for residents. But they have also consistently missed carbon emissions targets aimed at slowing climate change and failed to invest in tangible solutions.
“Europe has unfortunately not used the time of the last 20 years well enough to take the necessary actions to reorganize cities,” said Benjamin Kötz, head of sustainability initiatives at the European Space Agency, which provides policymakers with satellite images that can help. administrations plan for climate resilience.
“But we have to be fair,” he added. “It’s difficult because it comes with long-term planning and a lot of investment.”
Part of the problem is that much of the burden has fallen on municipalities, which have limited resources and limited avenues for heat mitigation in sometimes ancient urban spaces that are valued and protected from dramatic changes.
Florence is as good an example as any of the impact of rising temperatures as well as adaptation efforts, and their limits.
This summer, like every summer, Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, located in a wide valley where the river Arno has historically facilitated trade, is one of the hottest cities in Italy. Last July, a month marked by uninterrupted high temperatures, the Italian Ministry of Health estimated a 34 percent increase in deaths in the city, in north-central Italy.
For almost two decades, the city has been trying to adapt to the changing climate, mounting public offices, schools and hospitals, planting more trees and planning more parks in suburban areas. However, Florence, like all Italian historical cities, has struggled in its attempts to make its century-old city center greener and cooler.
Sitting in his air-conditioned, fresco-filled office inside Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s city hall, Mayor Dario Nardella said “a lot has been done” since the early 2000s, but he added there was “more to do”.
The hottest areas of Florence, mapped by the local university in the center and northwest quarter, share a few characteristics: they have almost no trees, and a lot of cement.
Mr. Nardella explained that the city has planted thousands of trees and invested nearly a billion euros, or about $1.12 billion, to keep cars out of the city center, building two new trams to connect the suburbs with the city center.
When the first tram line in the city was built in 2010, the management company even planted succulents between the tracks, following the principle that natural, permeable surfaces were cooler than asphalt.
Mr. Nardella showed a rendering of the planned renovation of one downtown street, where asphalt will be replaced by pietra serena stones and flanked by orange trees. It was one example, he said, but making changes in the historic center was difficult.
“The national law to protect the cultural heritage is an obstacle,” said Mr. Nardella. “But also our cultural identity and our history. Our cities have been like this for centuries.”
Experts agree that the modifications needed for European cities to mitigate heat are daunting. “Europe has many action plans, but the scale of changes needed to properly adapt to climate change is huge,” said Roop Singh, senior climate risk advisor at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.
She explained that at the city level, every building and home must be renovated to accommodate very high temperatures. Authorities should extend shelters and health services to poorer and more marginalized people, and reduce so-called urban heat islands where temperatures are particularly high.
Urban adaptation experts generally agree that all sectors needed an overhaul, “from building to transport to health, agriculture and productivity,” said Ine Vandecasteele, an expert at the European Environment Agency.
Governments must involve all levels of management also to address water shortages and floods, which are other risks linked to climate change. “Most countries are still not aligned, but a lot of progress has been made,” she said.
Scientists in Florence and elsewhere in Italy are pushing to introduce cool pavements to lower the temperature of the asphalt and its heat retention capacity. Los Angeles has tens of miles of cool pavement, a technology almost unused in Italy.
“Decreasing cement in urban areas is not easy,” said Marco Morabito, a lead researcher at Italy’s National Research Council in Florence, who has studied the issue of urban heat islands since the 1990s. “But there is a risk, given the global trend, that buildings in city centers will have critical living conditions for longer periods of time in the future.”
He explained that energy consumption for air conditioning will inevitably rise for residents in those districts as they try to cope with the extreme heat, and real estate is likely to depreciate. “The economic impact is more than we can think today,” said Mr. Morabito.
In a study published last year, the Bank of Italy noted that climate affects real estate transactions, orienting buyers or tenants to more climate-resistant buildings and lowering the prices for homes that are not sheltered from the extreme heat.
The challenge is not only from Italy. Scientists believe that northern countries, even if less prone to very high temperatures, will have a harder time dealing with them because people are less used to the heat. In 2010 in Moscow, thousands of people are estimated to have died during a heat wave.
Outside of Italy, Mediterranean countries such as Greece have begun to think about strategies to cope, but even in those areas many of the efforts are local. The Greek authorities started using reflective paving in the greater Athens area, but the consequences of the economic crisis in 2008 caused it to scale back the project.
It took another decade for Athens to introduce a chief heat officer to coordinate measures to combat overheating at the city level.
Even countries along the Atlantic took smaller-scale measures. In the city of Cascais in Portugal, near Lisbon, the municipality tried to create space for water to filter into the ground, and it planted indigenous species, which are better suited to adapt to water shortages, along the streets.
In Paris, the administration started a program to transform schoolyards into green oases accessible to both students and local communities, creating a series of shelters open to all. The mayor also promised to make the Seine safe for swimming ahead of an Olympic river race in 2024.
And in Copenhagen, local officials are removing parking spaces to discourage drivers from taking their cars downtown.
Experts recognize that in historic cities, some of the classic strategies to mitigate the heat will not work. Customs such as painting roofs white or making them with heat-reflective roofs, mandatory in California, would be hard to imagine in a city like Florence, which imposes limits on the materials used to restore buildings in order to preserve the historic character of the city.
“Construction materials like cool pavements have advanced tremendously in the past decade, but not their use,” said Mattheos Santamouris, a professor of high-performance architecture at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and a global expert on smart urban design. .
The cost of reducing the amount of carbon sent into the atmosphere from Europe is close to $260 billion a year, he said, and, around the world, the annual cost of overheating will rise from $400 billion to as much as $1.3 trillion. dollars by 2050.
“It is also a terrible discrimination because the first victims of extreme heat are poor people,” said Mr. Santamouris. “Ninety percent of those who died in 2003 were poor people.”
In Lodi, a northern Italian city near Milan, a street worker collapsed this week while painting signs in heat of more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit. He later died in hospital.