PARIS — A historic heat wave inflicted life-threatening temperatures on Europe and shattered all-time highs in multiple countries Thursday.
Britain came just shy of its record. The Met Office in Cambridge, England, measured 100.6 degrees Thursday. And London experienced its hottest July day on record, with a temperature of 100.2.
Those temperatures may not seem shocking by the standards of many regions in the United States, but in Europe, where air conditioning is relatively uncommon, they can be deadly.
“No one is safe in such temperatures,” said Agnès Buzyn, France’s health minister. “This is the first time that this affects departments in the north of the country . . . populations that are not accustomed to such heat.”
The heat wave has been caused by a massive area of high pressure that extends into the upper atmosphere. The phenomenon, also known as a heat dome, has temporarily rerouted the typical flow of the jet stream and allowed hot air from Africa to surge northward.
This system is expected to migrate farther north by the weekend, parking itself over Scandinavia and possibly breaking records in Norway and Sweden before making a run at the Arctic, where it could accelerate the melting of already anemic sea ice.
In Europe on Thursday, the impact of climate change was felt intimately.
In Paris, the heat radiated from the pavement and the city’s iconic stone facades. In an experiment, it took 10 minutes for a chocolate Eiffel Tower to melt in the sun.
Although this is high tourist season, major attractions such as the Place de la Concorde and the Luxembourg Gardens were eerily deserted. People piled into movie theaters — in some cases for films they didn’t especially want to see — because those were some of the few places to find air conditioning.
Twenty of France’s administrative departments — from Paris north toward the English Channel — were placed on the highest-possible alert level.
Élisabeth Borne, France’s minister of sustainable development, urged citizens to cancel or postpone all unnecessary travel. The SNCF, France’s state-owned railway company, allowed customers to exchange or cancel free of charge any Thursday travel to the 20 northern regions particularly affected.
In much of Europe, air conditioning has been seen as a luxury, and even a U.S.-style indulgence. Fewer than 5 percent of European households have air conditioning, compared with 90 percent in the United States. But that may change as episodes of punishing heat become the new normal.
“We are in a situation where people cannot live,” said Sacha Gaillard, a technician with Les Bons Artisans, a French company whose business includes installing air conditioners.
People “can’t sleep at their apartments. Air conditioning is no longer a comfort — it’s a necessity. It’s as if people had no heat in winter,” Gaillard said. The company’s air-conditioning business across France has increased exponentially in the past five years, he said.
Europe’s air-conditioner stock is estimated to roughly double within the next two decades, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), as record heat becomes more frequent.
Still, some Europeans say that air conditioning is precisely the wrong response to crippling heat waves triggered by climate change. HVAC systems consume a lot of power and release hot air, which can exacerbate the heat-
island effect in cities and intensify cooling demands.
There are also bureaucratic concerns. Many residential buildings in cities such as Paris are centuries old and are classified as landmarks. In Paris, the facades of such buildings cannot easily be altered without the express permission of city hall or an architectural union under the auspices of the Culture Ministry.
“Nine times out of 10, you’re not allowed to drill through the walls,” said James Devlin, a British man who runs James’Clim, an air-conditioning installation service in Paris. He said that because the restrictions in Paris are extensive, most of his installations take place in the suburbs and surrounding area.
“If it’s not a listed building, they’re still very restricted. You don’t have a place to put the unit on the exterior,” he said.
Cost, too, can be prohibitive. For a family-size Paris apartment of roughly 1,070 square feet, installing air conditioning could cost from 12,000 to 16,000 euros ($13,300 to $17,700), Devlin said. Even so, in the past five to six months, he said, he has had an installation almost every day. On Wednesday, the first day of the intense heat this week, he received more than 40 calls for consultations.
In the meantime, cities are coordinating impromptu measures for residents to cool off. Paris, for instance, has designated air-conditioned rooms in each arrondissement, or district, as well as outdoor swimming areas and parks that stay open round-the-clock.
In Germany on Thursday, Anton Hofreiter, the Green Party’s leader in parliament, complained that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government was not doing enough to support those most vulnerable to the heat.
European Greens have seen a surge in support, partly reflecting an emphasis on the need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and combat climate change.
In a proposal reported by the news magazine Der Spiegel, German Green Party officials are pushing for a “right to home office” for all employees and a “right to be given the day off in case of excessively hot weather” for employees working outside.
Long-term, human-caused climate change makes extreme-heat events such as the current wave more likely, more severe and longer-lasting, numerous scientific studies say.
In the wake of Europe’s first heat wave of the summer, in early July, scientists performed an analysis that showed human-caused climate change made the event at least five times more likely to occur.
“The combination of increasing average temperature and increasing variability, all due to human activity, could push vulnerable people and systems past the brink,” said Radley Horton, a climate researcher at Columbia University.
Globally, 2019 is on its way to being one of the five hottest years since record-keeping began in the late 19th century. And, in part because of the hot weather in Europe, July may rank as the hottest month on record. June 2019 was already the hottest June to date.
Europe’s heat wave coincided with the visit of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to France this week. She addressed the National Assembly on Tuesday, delivering a speech that was boycotted by far-right politicians.
“You don’t have to listen to us,” Thunberg said in her address, “but you do have to listen to the science.”
Freedman reported from Washington. Rick Noack in Berlin, Jennifer Hassan in London and Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.