Heatwave in France: An overpowering smell of rubbish and avoiding the oven

Paris feels like it’s burning. The last time I experienced heat this intense was in Baghdad

People cool off at the Trocadero Fountains in Paris. Photograph: Alain Jocard/Getty

People cool off at the Trocadero Fountains in Paris. Photograph: Alain Jocard/Getty

 

Paris feels like it’s burning, for the second time in a month: 37 degrees on Tuesday, 38 on Wednesday and a whopping 42 on Thursday. The last time I experienced heat that intense was in Baghdad.

Thursday’s peak is expected to break the previous record for the French capital of 40.4 degrees, set in 1947.

“Temperatures will be stifling in big towns at night, about 25 degrees,” Frédéric Nathan, a forecaster for Météo France, told France Info radio.

Last month, temperatures in the southern Gard department reached 46 degrees, another French record.

In the circumstances, you might expect climate change sceptics to shut up. But no, conservative and far-right deputies in the National Assembly boycotted a speech by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old passionara of the fight against global warming, before a non-partisan parliamentary group on Tuesday.

They called her the “prophetess in short trousers”, the “guru of the apocalypse” and “laureate of the Nobel fear prize”. The deputies, Thunberg replied, “are more afraid of me than of the real problem”.

Earlier this month, scientists from the World Weather Attribution project reported a direct link between climate change and heat waves, which are now “at least” five times more frequent than in 1947.

Eighty of France’s 96 mainland departments were on heat wave “orange alert” on Tuesday, a record. New temperature records were set in Bordeaux, Angers, Rennes and Blois.

Three-quarters of France has been forced to restrict the consumption of water because a 20 per cent drop in rainfall has created a drought. In parts of France, it hasn’t rained for a month. Streams are running dry. The electricity company has stopped two nuclear power plants because the river water used as coolant is too hot.

Temperatures this week are roughly equivalent to the 2003 heatwave, though the 2003 heatwave lasted longer. According to the health and medical research institute Inserm, it caused 19,490 deaths in France, mostly among the elderly, and close to 70,000 across Europe.

Those early deaths were attributed to official negligence. No government has been caught out since. The authorities provide air conditioned community rooms, leave parks open at night and set up temporary fountains and mist machines. The ministry of health has a toll-free heatwave hotline. Volunteers call on elderly citizens to make sure they drink enough water.

Because high temperatures raise ozone levels, only the least polluting vehicles are allowed to circulate.

Walking around the city in daylight hours, one feels as if one is being irradiated. The heat magnifies bad odours. Paris is still beautiful, but the smell of urine and garbage can be overpowering.

I stocked up on mineral water, ice cream, sorbet, gazpacho, taking care not to buy anything that requires lighting the oven. I’ve adopted the routine my mother taught me, on the edge of the Californian desert. I open all windows at night, close them and draw the curtains in early morning.

My greatest concern is for Spike, my frail, 19-year-old Irish moggy with his thick fur coat. During the 2015 heatwave, Spike had an epileptic fit. It was terrifying to watch my friend bob across the floor with bulging eyes. I pleaded with the vet to come quickly, and he injected Spike with water. Now I serve him chilled water from the fridge several times a day, and keep an electric fan pointed at him.

I obtained the concierge’s blessing to move Spike to the ground floor entry, which is cooler, before the thermostat hits 40. I’ll take him down in the morning with his litter tray, food, water, rug and fan. My neighbours have all fled the city, so I will leave the door of the apartment open. Spike can wander upstairs if he gets lonely.

I experienced a previous record-breaking drought and heatwave, in the summer of 1976, with the insouciance of a teenager on her first great adventure. Then, it seemed like a good excuse to indulge in ice cream and sit out on cafe terraces until late evening. I always remembered that 1976 became a grand millésime vintage year for Bordeaux wine.

But with what we know now of global warming, high temperatures and water shortages have taken on a sinister meaning; the chronicle of a death foretold, the death of our planet.

One cannot help being astounded by the snide remarks of right-wing politicians regarding Thunberg’s aptly timed visit to Paris. “We have entered into a new era,” says Frédéric Nathan of Météo France. “This will be more and more frequent in coming decades. It will become the norm.”

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