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France bakes but is it down to climate change?

These days, "record-breaking temperature" headlines seem so common, they hardly feel newsworthy.

But the unusual thing about the heatwave currently covering much of Europe, and UK-bound for the weekend, is the timing.

June is very early in the summer to see such high temperatures.

Across many parts of France, the familiar neon temperatures gauges put the temperature in the mid 40s. They are not wholly accurate but it is still very, very hot.

Officially, according to the meteorologists at Sky News, the high in France today is expected to be 40C (104F). If it gets to 41.5 (106.7F) then it is a new June record.


Some French meteorologists are forecasting that the temperatures in some parts of rural France could hit 45C (113F) in the next couple of days. That would be an all-time record and yet, again, it is only June.

In the 2003 heatwave – which was in August, not June – the temperature hit 44.1C (111F).

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European weather: All-time temperature records for June broken across continent

European weather: All-time temperature records for June broken across continent

Dozens of schools in France have closed, while Germany has placed speed limits on stretches of its usually limitless motorway.

A staggering 15,000 people died in the summer of 2003 from illnesses related to the heat. Acutely aware of the perception that there was an institutional failure back then, the authorities are now making sure all the appropriate facilities and safeguards are in place.

Across the country, the mairies (town halls) are open with facilities for people. "Cool" spaces have been collated on a smartphone app.

Obviously, the elderly are most at risk and people are being encouraged to check on their neighbours.

The other problem is the humidity. Because the heat has come earlier in the year, it is more humid because there is more moisture in the earth.

That makes it feel even hotter than it is. A temperature of 40C (104F) could actually feel more like 47C (116.6F).

Is this climate change in action? At the headquarters of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) we meet Dr Shardul Agrawala.

He heads the institution's Environment and Economic Integration Division. He is a specialist in climate change and is in no doubt.

"Absolutely. It's certainly a preview of what you expect more and more under climate change," he says.

"Heatwaves, the topic of today, are projected to become twice as frequent by mid-century if we don't aggressively act on reducing greenhouse emissions.

Heatwave takes hold: Fires, heatstroke & crowded fountains

"One of the things climate change does is it exacerbates the variability. We are talking about global events.

"It's about the onset of heatwaves, how high the temperatures go, how many heat waves there are and all of those things are likely to be exacerbated with climate change."

Paris has almost become synonymous with the global fight to save the planet – the historic 2016 Paris Agreement to limit global warming was heralded as a breakthrough moment. I was there and remember the palpable sense of excitement and achievement among the hundreds of delegates.

Nearly four years on the American government has abandoned it, CO2 emissions are going up not down and we're all more and more used to extreme weather.

But Dr Agrawala still has some optimism.

"A lot has changed since then," he says. "I think one of the things that has happened since Paris is countries have got into the nitty gritty of operationalising the vision they collectively shared in Paris.

"Also in terms of the private sector there is a lot of activity and increasing private financing.

Public "cool places" have been designated across France to help cope with the temperatures
Image: Public 'cool places' have been designated across France to help cope with the temperatures

"So yes there is a lot of action. I think one of the new developments in last six to eight months has been the ground swell of grass roots support. We have seen children going on strikes to protest against climate change."

So Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the accord hasn't stopped other nations from forging forward with the commitments made here four years ago.

But it remains a struggle. World leaders are gathering in Japan for the G20 this weekend and there is already a row about whether a pledge to tackle climate change should even be mentioned in the final communique.

French President Emanuel Macron has said his nation will not accept the final communique unless it mentions the Paris Climate Accord.

"If we don't talk about the Paris Agreement and if we don't get an agreement on it amongst the 20 members in the room, we are no longer capable of defending our climate change goals, and France will not be part of this, it's as simple as that," the president said on his arrival in Japan.

As I write this, the traffic is clogged on the street next to me. Most cars have just one occupant. It took us an hour to travel three miles in the city yesterday (we have camera kit so a car is necessary).

People in Montpellier have welcomed any opportunity to cool off
Image: If temperatures reach 41.5 (106.7F) then it is a new June record

One French politician has spent the morning shaming his colleagues for what he perceives to be hypocrisy.

Francois Ruffin tweeted a video as he watched his colleagues arriving at the National Assembly, most in cars for short journeys and for a debate in the chamber about the environment.

Dedans, les grands discours sur la canicule et sur l'environnement. Dehors, les voitures des ministres, leurs escortes, moteurs qui tournent, sous 40°C.
Je fais mon Yann Barthès dans la cour de l'Assemblée.

— François Ruffin (@Francois_Ruffin) 26 June 2019

Changing habits will require a massive cultural shift combined with genuine leadership, investment and incentives.

Until then, enjoy the heat and find some shade.

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