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How major European cities like Paris are preparing for the next heat wave


2023 is on track to be the world's hottest year on record, and Europe is warming almost twice as fast as the global average. Residents of Paris have a greater chance of dying in a heat wave than the residents of any other city in Europe. That's according to the medical journal The Lancet. From Paris, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports on how the city is trying to prepare.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: An exercise took place recently in Paris' 13th arrondissement. Dozens of schoolchildren were herded into a shaded, defunct rail tunnel. Little desks with crayons and paper had been set up for them. The drill was not in preparation for a bomb threat or a terrorist attack, but for heat waves. Ziad Touat, who helped prepare the crisis drill, says heat domes - a phenomenon where sweltering heat stays in place - don't just happen in July and August.

ZIAD TOUAT: You can have a heat dome in May and June and September. So we have to think about the future and to be sure that any student can go to school for 2 or 3 days, even if it's in a tunnel or in a parking.

BEARDSLEY: An underground parking lot - Touat says such naturally cool places are being identified across the city for vulnerable populations, like children and the elderly. Human-driven climate change has increased the frequency, size, intensity and duration of extreme heat events. Scientists say, by mid-century, temperatures could reach 50 degrees Celsius - or 122 degrees Fahrenheit - in Europe's most densely populated city. Green Party Paris Council member Alexandre Florentin led a six-month multipartisan task force to look at solutions.

ALEXANDRE FLORENTIN: We are really not prepared for the heat waves to come.

BEARDSLEY: We meet in one of the city's heat danger zones near the Paris Opera House, built by architect Charles Garnier in the 1860s.

FLORENTIN: The Opera Avenue, right over there, has no trees. There is not a single tree. Do you know why? Because one guy called Garnier - he said, well, if I'm going to build an opera there, you'll have to have a full avenue and a nice view. I don't want any trees.

BEARDSLEY: So today, the neighborhood full of upscale law firms needs maximum air conditioning, which is never a solution, says Florentin, because air conditioning always creates heat.

FLORENTIN: When you live in a place that is so dense as Paris, basically you are heating your neighbors.

BEARDSLEY: His taskforce report, titled "Paris At 50 Degrees" and sponsored by the city, recommends more green spaces, trees, vines to cover buildings and solutions like letting wind flow through buildings.

FLORENTIN: Maybe we should destroy some buildings at some places so that the air flows better.


BEARDSLEY: Paris is known for its iconic 19th-century Haussmann-era rooftops. I walk eight floors up on a service staircase with entrepreneur Eytan Levi.


BEARDSLEY: Wow. These are the rooftops of Paris.

EYTAN LEVI: We are surrounded by a sea of zinc roofs and chimneys and...

BEARDSLEY: Levi says these romantic-looking zinc rooftops absorb heat. Their surface temperature can reach 70 degrees Celsius - 158 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, residents on the top two floors of these historic buildings have four times the chance of dying in a heat wave.

Levi is part of a new company called Roofscapes that wants to build timber platforms on top of the zinc roofs.

LEVI: First of all, we're trying to create a shading effect.

BEARDSLEY: The wood will keep solar radiation from directly reaching the zinc surfaces.

LEVI: And second of all, with this timber platform, we're very much trying to add more greenery. The majority of our platforms is going to be covered with soil and plants, which will further help decrease the temperatures inside the buildings.

BEARDSLEY: Paris Councilman Florentin says this is exactly the kind of project that's needed on a massive scale. He says society must reorder its priorities to make things happen in time.

FLORENTIN: The way we have developed our societies, thanks to oil, thanks to an absurd amount of energy - we became lazy when it comes to designing.

BEARDSLEY: What's needed is nothing short of a lifestyle revolution. Still, Florentin says he's hopeful.

FLORENTIN: Paris is a very resilient city. It's a very rich city. It has history. People here understand that we have a responsibility toward the future as well.

BEARDSLEY: But what if there is no revolution? - I ask. What will Paris become?

FLORENTIN: A city where the rich install air conditioners...

BEARDSLEY: And the poor see their life expectancy drop. He says, that's not a city he'd want to live in.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.