Climate change and air conditioning

The recent scorching weather reminds me of similar scenes 20 years ago. We were all literally baking in the massive pressure cooker that Attica had become. Millions of people locked up in their tiny air-conditioned concrete boxes, hiding from the relentless heat outside. That summer, the sun beat down mercilessly on millions of apartments, stores and offices, hundreds of hospitals and millions of cars. Meanwhile we were staggering to and from work in a heat-induced daze, waiting for the furnace to cool down. This was the unforgettable summer of 1987. From July 19 to 27, temperatures reached 47 Celsius (116.6 Fahrenheit) in the city center and western suburbs. During this week the asphalt on the roads seemed to give way beneath our feet and in some places even cracked open. Many of us left our refrigerators open overnight in the hope of cooling down our apartments; others wet the floors of our balconies and slept out on the cool marble. That summer, even the sea was too overheated to provide relief and the densest patches of shade were not adequate for escaping the heat. Hundreds of elderly people died in that heat wave, alone in their homes – without air conditioning – before being crammed into overcrowded morgues. That was 20 years ago. Now citizens do not have to cling to their fans for relief during hot summers. Some 16 million air-conditioning units keep citizens cool and dry inside their concrete boxes, but these units continue to fuel the giant furnace of climate change. Now we are enduring a heat wave, it seems we have no air to breathe. We will fry for another few days. And then the weather will cool down. Maybe we will even have rain and thunderstorms. Then the heat will return. A 12,000-year-old period of climatic stability is coming to an end, scientists say. And instead of attempting to maintain some kind of balance, we are turning our green spaces into concrete, burning our dwindling fossil fuel reserves and pushing the climate down a road of no return. A phenomenon which used to occur only once every 46,000 years – i.e. the temperature hovering 8 degrees Celsius above the seasonal average for three weeks – now tends to occur every two years and is driving people, animals and plants crazy. During the heat wave of 2003, which led to 35,000 deaths in Western Europe, trees were releasing more carbon dioxide than they were absorbing. Earth – this paradise of glaciers, jungles and deserts – is changing. But it will not be lost because of us. It is we proud and addle-brained people who will be lost if we continue to trample thoughtlessly on all those elements that are keeping us alive.

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