In sweaty Europe, air conditioning is no way to cope with the heat

In the middle of a heat wave, people seek refuge in Wismar, northern Germany on August 7, 2015. For decades, the use of air conditioning has been a cultural dividing line between the United States and Europe. But European summers appear to be getting hotter.
In the middle of a heat wave, people seek refuge in Wismar, northern Germany on August 7, 2015. For decades, the use of air conditioning has been a cultural dividing line between the United States and Europe. But European summers appear to be getting hotter. McClatchy

During the recent talks over the Iranian nuclear program, the temperatures outside the ritzy Palais Coburg Hotel, where the talks were taking place, approached 100 degrees.

Inside, where seven cabinet-level leaders from six of the world’s most powerful nations, as well as Iran, were engaged in some of the world’s most delicate diplomatic negotiations, it was even hotter.

“You have no idea what our room is like, said one Western diplomat, who’s not being named because he prefaced his remarks with “if you write this I will kill you.”

“The Coburg Hotel is a lovely hotel,” he added. “But – way off the record – air conditioning is not what they did best.”

Air conditioning may be considered a boon in the United States, making liveable Florida’s tropical summers and cooling the blazing heat that often reaches into the triple digits in Texas or California’s Central Valley. And it may have set off office battles in the United States between men and women over what the proper temperatures should be.

There are no such disputes in Europe. Europeans abhor the idea of air conditioning, noting, rather smugly, that it’s a huge energy guzzler that helps drive the production of the greenhouse gases blamed for driving global temperatures up.

Travel websites are filled with stories – mostly from women – of how unpleasant the United States is with its artificial cold, and stories are legion of Europeans who return ill.

In uber-green Germany, a recent government website offered sweating citizens the advice of turning on a fan and only 2 percent of the homes are air conditioned. Still, there are those that wonder if citizens really need to live so uncomfortably. Summers are, after all, getting hotter. Not Texas or Florida hot, but by European standards, sweltering.

Germany, you must remember, is not supposed to get hot.

A “hot” day, what the the Germans call a “Hitzetag,” officially is any day when the temperature reaches 86 degrees Farhenheit. A night when the temperature stays above 68 degrees F is known as a “Tropennacht,” meaning “tropical night.” In 1951, which was pretty standard for the years before that, as well, the average number of “hot days” was 3 to 4. Today, in parts of Germany, that’s up to 18. There are 13 forecast this month alone for Berlin, which is usually on the cool side for Germany.

And that history has proved a disaster when it comes to comfort.

Take for example, the trains.

When Germans set up their futuristic looking intercity train system (ironically called ICE), they added air-conditioning that would keep passengers cool, as long as the temperatures outside didn’t soar above 89.6 degrees. In a 2010 report to the German government, the agency that runs the trains admitted there was no plan for temperatures above that.

With more and more days with higher temperatures, ICE trains have gotten a reputation as fast moving broilers. Windows don’t open on high-speed trains.

Frank Boehnke, spokesman for the Association of German Rail Users, a federal consumer group based in Berlin, said passengers wonder how trains that can travel at more than 200 mph can have such outdated air conditioning.

“We have complaints every year. The temperature inside the trains can reach 122 degrees,” he said. “Passengers can be locked up in such conditions for hours.”

Passengers faint, or get ill. Trains run out of water. Travel can be disrupted nationwide, in a nation that relies on the trains for travel. Boehnke says Deutsche Bahn, the agency that operates the trains, has said the issue will be addressed with the next generation of trains. He said it needs to be dealt with “urgently.”

“With climate change we have to expect more days of extreme temperature in the future,” Boehnke said.

At times, the issue is obvious to all. On Aug. 3, a high-speed train from Berlin to Munich was sitting in the Stuttgart station when one of its overworked air conditioning units burst into flames.

Trains are not the only place in Germany that could use an air conditioning upgrade. The temperature in the transparent cupola above the Bundestag, where the German parliament meets, has reached 104 many times this summer and has been recorded as high as 120. Around Berlin, its new nickname is “Hitzekuppel” or “heat dome” and tourists have passed out after making the climb to it. As such, it’s often been closed during Berlin’s peak tourist season – this week, for example – with officials noting they’re “unsure when it will be open again.”

Hotels either don’t offer air conditioning or it doesn’t work. Even grocery stores are insufferable; entire sections of produce are thrown out for having over-ripened in the extreme temperatures.

Paul Becker, vice president of the German weather service, warned last month in a statement that the problem goes beyond mere comfort.

“In the wake of climate change, we expect more, longer and more intense heat waves in Germany in the future,” he said. “If we don’t succeed in adjusting, this could lead to a multiplication of heat related mortality due to coronary heart disease by a factor of 3 to 5 by the end of the century.”

Still, the German government is loathe to recommend more air conditioning. The German Ministry of the Environment this month specifically exempted air conditioning from subsidies provided to adapt to climate change. “Air conditioning is ruled out as it works against the protection of the environment,” it said.

The ministry called air conditioning a good example of a win-lose scenario: those seeking relief from the heat might win, but the environment loses and it leads to more climate change problems in the long run.

But officials also aren’t quite sure what they would suggest if faced with another summer like 2003, when an estimated 70,000 Europeans died from heat-related causes.

In that year, the most infamous example of the cost of not having air-conditioning was seen in Paris, where the French government chastised young families for heading to the cooler coasts during the heat spell and leaving their aging parents to die in their Paris apartments. In first two weeks of August, 14,800 died.

The reactions to that summer were evident among all Europeans, though differed greatly from place to place. In Greece, for instance, the European Union now estimates that 99 percent of households have air-conditioning, surpassing even the estimated 87 percent of Americans with air-conditioning. But while there have been slow, steady climbs since that year in the households with air-conditioning, the percentage of homes in France remains below 5, in Germany below 2 percent and in Austria below 1 percent.

In fact, one of the more obvious signs of the continuing disdain for cooled air in Europe can be found in German law. Reacting to the summer of 2003 and rising temperatures in general, German law was rewritten from requiring businesses to provide a workplace with temperatures below 79 degrees to a requirement that they provide a “reasonable” workplace temperature. Keeping the workplace below 79 wasn’t seen as possible without air conditioning, so the law was changed not to require it.

Niklas Schinerl, an energy expert at Greenpeace, Germany, says the fact that more aren’t rushing towards cooling systems is a positive sign, and shows a commitment to the environment. Still, he acknowledged that even in Switzerland, energy consumption for air conditioning has doubled in the last 10 years. He noted that energy consumption for air conditioning now consumes the equivalent of all the power generated by one of Switzerland’s five nuclear reactors. And that’s expected to rise.

Yet he thinks Europe will hold the line.

“I don’t think the top end is as high for Europe as it is in the United States,” he said. “The number of new houses built to include it will increase, but it won’t go that high. And that’s a good thing for the climate.”

Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews