When I hopped off the rickety Ryanair plane in London, I was greeted by the familiar but long-absent feeling of being cold. The English rain was its usual drizzly self, and I was ecstatic. Not because I like the cold (in fact I hate it), but because for the past week my brain had barely been able to function. I was in Venice and every time I breathed I felt scorching air hitting the back of my throat. The temperature got so high that the asphalt streets took on the consistency of microwaved gummy bears.
At the time of writing, with pictures from Rhodes dominating European news coverage, 23 Italian cities from Trieste in the north to Palermo in Sicily have been put on red alert. Red alerts are now common on the continent and Italy appears to be the epicentre. Palermo has the record for the hottest ever European temperature, 48.8C, a title it has held for two years. That’s just 8C below the global record, set in Death Valley in the US.
Italian hospitals have reported a 20% increase in heat-related illness. People have been dropping dead from the heat – a 44-year-old construction worker, a 69-year-old husband and wife. A recent paper by Nature showed that Italy had the most heat-related deaths in Europe last year – 18,000. The Met Office currently predicts that this year’s heatwave will be worse.
And how could I forget the new record set in Rome last Tuesday, where temperatures got up to 41.8C? It was another new, unwelcome record.
Across the Eternal City, neighbourhoods including Torpignattara, Alessandrino and Marconi experienced blackouts as people turned up their air con in an effort to keep cool. Current usage has reached a record high of 57.85 Gigawatts for this year.
It’s all the more remarkable, as Italians tend to dislike air conditioning. Older generations will tell you it’s the cold that makes you ill, even when they’re sitting in a house that’s the temperature of an oven.
When my sister-in-law came to visit from Arizona at the end of last month, she was shocked by our set-up.
“I’m dying without air conditioning here,” she said. “The heat is a lot more humid than back home and so it feels hotter. How do you manage without air conditioning?”
“It’s better not to have it,” responded my mother-in-law. “It isn’t good for you and dangerous.”
That’s not an unusual view – but attitudes on that front are changing. Fans in our household have been left on overnight. I’ve been looking on Google at the best air-conditioning units to buy. Even my friend Anna’s Rome-born-and-bred husband, Davide, was thinking about getting a unit. I visited them in the capital last week.
“It’s far too hot here. I just want there to be cool air and not be hot for a while,” he said, as the three of us downed water after foolishly attempting to go out for lunch. We were back in their apartment within 10 minutes of leaving it.
The Italian demand for air conditioning crept up to 1.5m units in 2021, according to Statista. That number is expected to increase. That’s not to say that Italians don’t care about their environment – they really do. Surveys show that most Italians consider the climate the main global challenge.
But it has become so horribly hot. Italians are breaking with the past and switching on the air con. That alone is a sign that environmental change is happening.