France Is Being Hit by a Massive Heat Wave. Will It Change the Country and the Culture?

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CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ Paris

The French consider AC to be unhealthy. Will they change their minds in the face of a changing climate?

Historically, Europeans have eschewed air conditioning. Many in France considered it unhealthy, blaming illness on rapid changes in temperature. They call a cold “un chaud et froid” –a hot and cold.

Their apartments have thick walls and exterior shutters to keep the heat out, which have traditionally kept them a lot cooler. Also, the French are far more flexible about temperature. According to TreeHugger regular Michael Sivak, quoted in the Washington Post:

Americans tend to keep their thermostats at the same temperature all year around. In contrast, Europeans tend to set their thermostats higher in summer and lower in winter. Consequently, while indoors, Europeans wear sweaters in winter, while American wear sweaters in summer.

And now it is being hit with a massive heat wave. From the Guardian:

“The latest forecasts leave little room for doubt: we are heading for a new national record,” said Guillaume Woznica, a French forecaster, noting Météo-France was now predicting peaks of 45C (113F) in the southern towns of Nîmes and Carpentras on Friday.

Lloyd Alter/ Paris/CC BY 2.0

The French Health minister notes that the French should get used to this: “We will have to change the way we live, the way we act, the way we work, travel, dress ... We are going to have to change our habits and stop thinking these episodes are exceptional.”

Sales of fans and air conditioners are up by 400 percent, but even in these conditions, the medical advice is to use the air conditioner sparingly; they really do believe that rapid temperature changes make you sick. If North Americans followed this advice, we might save a lot of electricity, according to the Connexion;

To avoid health issues, the ideal temperature difference between interior, air-conditioned temperatures and the outside heat should be no more than 8C [14.4°F] experts said.

I doubt anyone in North America has ever heard of such a thing. When I was in Phoenix last year and the temperature was close to a hundred, I never was in any space where the thermostat was set at 85°. But the French doctors explain in the Connexion:

"When the air conditioning is too cold, when it is between 30 and 35°C outside, you impose violent temperature changes on your body. The body no longer understands what is happening to it, and our organs want to defend themselves," Jean-Louis San Marco, Professor of Medicine at the University of Marseille, told Allô Docteurs. "When it is hot, the blood vessels [in our nose, in our throat] dilate to help the body eliminate excess heat. On the contrary, when it is cold, they contract to keep it. When we move too often from hot to cold, our mucous membranes get irritated."
Paris cafe

Lloyd Alter/ Paris cafe/CC BY 2.0

It is a different way of thinking. It might slow down the adoption of air conditioning, but I suspect that in a few years the streets of Paris will look and sound different, as more people hang AC condensers outside their units, and as streets and parks become less crowded because people are hiding inside instead of hanging out in cafés.

Years ago, Barbara Flanagan wrote in ID Magazine: “What happens when humans treat themselves like dairy products chilled behind glass? Civilization declines.” She continued: “A/C is the killing frost sure to wilt the last fragile shoots of American culture.” I hope that it doesn’t do that to France.